Michael Grabner

Michael Grabner reflects on his path to the NHL

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There’s a sizable group of players who hope to prove that their breakthrough 2010-11 seasons weren’t flukes, even if many of them already cashed in on their first “hit” seasons. Joel Ward, Teddy Purcell and Sean Bergenheim are just a few of the guys who face the tough task of putting on an encore performance and justifying a significant pay raise, but one of the most interesting cases is that of New York Islanders speedster Michael Grabner.

The Islanders made a significant investment in Grabner, signing him to a five-year, $15 million deal on the heels of a 34-goal season in which he finished as one of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy. Grabner’s 2010-11 season went from rough (being traded by the Vancouver Canucks) to humiliating (being waived by the Florida Panthers and picked up by the Islanders) to a stunning success.

Perhaps it was a mere coincidence, but it almost seemed like Grabner’s runaway victory during the 2011 NHL All-Star Game’s fastest skater competition was a coming out party for the speedy sniper. Grabner’s split stats certainly make a case that something changed once 2011 rolled around. After scoring five goals and 11 points in 32 games from October through December 2010, Grabner scored 26 goals and 41 points in 44 games from January to April 2011. John Blanchette elaborates on Grabner’s hot streak.

The early going was still a struggle – the Islanders lost 14 in a row at one point – but he was invited to the SuperSkills competition at the NHL All-Star game in January and won the fastest skater event. And as his ice time grew, so did his impact. Starting in mid-January, he scored 16 goals in a month – including 10 in a stunning six-game stretch. He finished with a rookie-high 34 goals, which earned him third place in the Calder Trophy voting – and that hefty contract.

It might be easy to summarize Grabner’s journey to the NHL through the dramatic highs and lows of his previous season, but Blanchette points out that Grabner struggled in his first year out of Austria with the Spokane Chiefs, something the winger discussed during the team’s training camp.

Grabner was a Chiefs rookie, their first Austrian import, in 2004 who suffered a broken collarbone in his first Western Hockey League shift. It was the job of Kevin Sawyer – then an assistant but himself a former Chief with NHL experience – to skate him back into shape.

“And Michael seriously thought Kevin was trying to kill him,” recalled Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz with a laugh – perhaps hearing Sawyer’s impression of Grabner’s thickly accented moans in his head. “He couldn’t believe it. He wanted to go home.

“But every player has to go through some kind of adjustment here and that was Michael’s – the competitive adjustment. I think he was the best player in Austria – he could skate away from or catch anybody – but he wasn’t ready to be a competitive player like the Canadians who grow up playing bantam and midget hockey in an intense environment.”

Ultimately, Grabner’s career took off the same way his 2010-11 season erupted: with a goal-scoring spree. It’s difficult to say if he will remain a dangerous scorer through the life of his contract. On the bright side, he’s only 23 years old and his shooting percentage (14.9 pct.) wasn’t outrageously high last season. That number will likely go down to somewhere around 10-12 percent next season, but if he keeps firing shots on net (228 in 76 games in 10-11) he should be able to flirt with the 25+ goal mark when healthy. On the other hand, he still has a way to go before he’s a complete player and one season of strong work makes a five-year contract seem like a scary risk.

Either way, Grabner’s faced some turmoil already in his career, so it’s reasonable think that he can shake off a setback or two during the next five seasons.

Colton Orr — one of the last enforcers — has retired

Florida Panthers' George Parros (22) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Colton Orr (28) fight during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Monday, Feb. 18, 2013.  (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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After 477 games, 12 goals, 12 assists and — most notably — 1,186 penalty minutes, Colton Orr has retired from the NHL.

“I feel privileged to have played for a decade in the NHL and to have had the support of four great organizations in Boston, New York, Toronto and Calgary,” Orr, 34, said, via the NHLPA. “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play with great teammates and against great players, many of whom have become great friends.”

Undrafted out of the WHL, Orr was a prototypical enforcer, the kind that few teams carry anymore. In 2009-10, he fought 23 times in 82 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, piling up 239 PIMs in the process. That was the most he ever fought in a single NHL season. But he dropped the gloves 36 times for the Providence Bruins in 2003-04 and 33 times in 2004-05, per hockeyfights.com

In the NHL, Orr had a couple of infamous bouts with fellow tough guy George Parros — one that ended with Orr going face-first into the ice and suffering a season-ending concussion, another with Parros getting knocked out and leaving on a stretcher.

“I look forward now to the next chapter of my life which I could not be happier to share with the two loves of my life — my wife Sabrina and daughter, Charlotte,” Orr said. “They are the two consistently bright lights in my life who have made the darker parts of my journey a very bright part of a very fulfilling career.”

Related: ‘The game has changed’

No chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM

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Reflecting on a year in which pundits saw mostly regression and a lack of team cohesion, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher took to the podium on Thursday to reflect on what he called a “disappointing” campaign.

Among the key takeaways:

There’s no chemistry issue on our team.

Not surprising Fletcher had to go here.

In mid-February, the club was forced to fire head coach Mike Yeo amid rumblings the players had tuned him out — which, not coincidentally, came amid a horrific losing streak.

There were also major, season-long issues with veteran players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, both of whom woefully underachieved.

Vanek, in particular, was a healthy scratch under Yeo and interim bench boss John Torchetti. The 32-year-old’s effort level repeatedly came into question, and now buyout rumors loom.

Elsewhere, team leaders Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were embroiled in controversy when, following his dismissal, Yeo took issue with the two working with skills coach Adam Oates during the season.

The Star-Tribune’s Mike Russo noted that Oates showed up at a Wild morning skate in January, so he asked Yeo about it:

When you say things never felt right, did this start with the Adam Oates stuff? “Yeah. I thought we dealt with it. We talked with Zach, and we had no issues with it after that. And talked with some players, and … Whether it’s something like that, whether it’s the trade rumors, whatever it is, when there’s things that might cause a little unrest, they kind of sit there and they hang out. When things are going well, they’re forgotten and pushed to the side. But when things don’t go well, quite often they come back.”

Did it bother you that Oates came to the Buffalo morning skate? That was at the start of the tailspin? “I’m not going to even comment on it. But I would say, that I would not do the same thing.”

Yeo went on to add he felt there was a divide in the Wild locker room.

“It just felt like there were almost two groups,” he explained. “There were younger guys and there were the older guys. It wasn’t just a group.”

He’s definitely a very serious candidate for the head coach position.”

That was Fletcher on Torchetti, who’s currently holding the interim tag. The Wild GM praised Torchetti for being “able to push and pull this team into a playoff position,” but stopped short of promoting him to full-fledged head coach.

Why?

Well, the Wild weren’t that good under Torchetti.

They went 15-11-1 during the regular season and bowed out to Dallas in six playoff games. Granted, they showed some fight and spirit at times, and a few players definitely played better under Torch than Yeo (Erik Haula was exhibit 1a).

But there were also some alarming moments of apathy and poor play, like a late-season drubbing in Winnipeg which led goalie Devan Dubnyk to remark, “we’re going to get throttled if we’re going to play like this.”

This is probably why Fletcher fielded so many questions about his team’s character and chemistry on Thursday.

He’s done almost everything within his power as a GM with this group — big trades, coaching changes, free agent splashes — yet with the club is still potentially headed in the wrong direction.

That’s why it was time to start questioning the group.

Related: Wild owner says Fletcher’s not on the hot seat

Report: No deal between Coyotes and Stars’ Jackson

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When the Arizona Coyotes fired Don Maloney earlier this month, Les Jackson’s name was immediately raised as a potential candidate to become the new general manager.

Jackson is the highly regarded assistant GM in Dallas. He’s been with the Stars dating back to their days in Minnesota.

And, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Jackson will remain with the Stars.

If Jackson is indeed out of the picture, the favorite to replace Maloney becomes Coyotes assistant GM John Chayka, the 26-year-old who specializes in analytics.

The Coyotes have promised that a new GM will be hired “well before” the draft in late June.

Related: What’s up with the Coyotes’ arena situation?

What’s going on with the Avs and NCAA standout Butcher?

TAMPA, FLORIDA - APRIL 07:  Will Butcher #4 of the Denver Pioneers celebrates his goal with teamamtes on the bench in the third period against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks during semifinals of the 2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships at Amalie Arena on April 7, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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There’s plenty to like about University of Denver junior Will Butcher.

He was one of the top defenseman scorers in the country this season, with 32 points in 39 games, and was named a Second-Team (West) All-American.

He’s good good bloodlines, the son of ex-NHL blueliner Garth Butcher.

What’s more, Butcher — Colorado’s fifth-round pick in 2013 — is regarded as one of the organization’s top prospects, per ESPN.

So how to explain this, from the Denver Post?

Butcher will remain at DU for his senior season. He might be more likely to have his rights traded or become a free agent in 2017 than sign with the Avalanche.

Just have to sit back and see how this one plays out, but the 5-foot-10 Butcher is certainly an excellent NCAA defenseman.

The concern about players going back to school for their senior campaigns is that, once they’ve finished, they’re eligible to go to unrestricted free agency.

(Like what happened between the Nashville Predators and Jimmy Vesey.)

In the same article — titled “Avalanche signs one All-American but might pass on the second” — the Post said there would be more on the Butcher story in Sunday’s paper, while posting this tweet from College Hockey News:

It’s probably worth noting Butcher, now 21, was from one of the last draft classes of the Rick Pracey era. Pracey, Colorado’s longtime scouting chief that was turfed in 2014, didn’t exactly go out on the greatest of terms.

Colorado’s first-round pick in ’14, Connor Bleackley, was widely panned before getting dealt to Arizona in the Mikkel Boedker trade. The other piece of the Boedker trade — Kyle Wood, taken in the same year as Bleackley — was sent packing in part because the Avs had yet to sign him to an ELC.

At the Frozen Four, Butcher discussed his status with the Avs in a Q&A with Hockey’s Futures. He said the proximity between DU and the NHL club made it easy for the Avs to monitor him, and that he was in frequent contact with player development consultant Brett Clark.

When asked about where he saw himself slotting in with the Avs, Butcher had this to say:

“I think the Avs have got some deep prospects on their blueline, so there’s definitely going to be some competition there. But I haven’t really focused on that because I’m just focused on the Frozen Four right now.”