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.

PHT Morning Skate: Zdeno Chara shot catches emergency goalie in a sensitive spot

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–Sean McIndoe looks at five players who became the unlikeliest first 50-goal scorers in their franchise’s history. McIndoe chose Rick MacLeish (Flyers), Rick Vaive (Maple Leafs), Vic Hadfield (Rangers), Guy Chouinard (Flames) and Mickey Redmond (Red Wings). (The Hockey News)

–A lot of people think hockey players are the toughest athletes, but Islanders forward Anders Lee is here to tell you that they aren’t tough at all. In his story for The Players’ Tribune, Lee writes about a tough, young friend, who is battling cancer. “In the seven years since he has been diagnosed, he has gone through multiple surgeries. He’s had countless radiation treatments. He’s gone through chemotherapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants. And he does it all with a smile on his face. So when I hear people refer to me as tough because I play hockey, I think of Fenov and kids like him.” (The Players’ Tribune)

–The Boston Bruins needed an emergency goalie for their practice yesterday, and they settled on Massachusetts state trooper Kevin Segee. Surely, it was the experience of a lifetime for him, but it didn’t come without pain. Segee was clearly shaken up after getting a Zdeno Chara in the…well, you know. (CSN New England)

–Blackhawks forwards Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane and Tanner Kero each had multi-point games in Wednesday’s 5-1 thumping of the Pittsburgh Penguins. You can watch the highlights from the game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–What was the world like the last time the Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs? Thanks to Sports Illustrated, we don’t have to wonder. In 1990, J.K. Rowling had just started writing the Harry Potter series, Donald Trump walked out of an interview with CNN because they were asking tough questions about his casino, the first known webpage was written and much, much more. (Sports Illustrated)

–Edmonton Oilers players and their significant others came together to make 400-500 bowls of homemade soup for charity. It’s pretty cool to see most of the team be involved in such a nice event, even though the onion chopping station gave some of the guys a hard time. (Edmonton Oilers on Twitter)

–Sportsnet has assembled the top hits of the week for your viewing pleasure. Hits from that Toronto, Columbus game made the video a couple of times:

Milbury, Jones: Tkachuk walked the walk; Kings’ response was embarrassing

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The Los Angeles Kings got revenge on Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames on the scoreboard on Wednesday. But was that 4-1 win enough?

Mike Milbury and Keith Jones provided a lengthy “overtime” segment on NBCSN that brought about some really fascinating takes on the situation between Tkachuk and the Flames versus Drew Doughty and the Los Angeles Kings.

Watch the full video above, as it’s worth your time.

A few interesting lines if you’re (tsk tsk) skipping it:

Milbury: Believes that Doughty didn’t “do enough,” noting that star players sometimes have to stick up for themselves. On the other hand, Tkachuk showed that he can “walk the walk.”

He also gave the Kings a “C-, D+ if not worse” for their overall response. “Fight your own battles,” Milbury said of Doughty.

Jones disagreed to some extent, believing that Kings teammates won’t look at Doughty differently. But Jake Muzzin? He believes that Muzzin’s frequent defensive partner (at least over the years, maybe not this season) backing down from a fight was an embarrassment.

Spicy stuff.

For what it’s worth, Drew Doughty has one career fight (against Joe Thornton [!] in 2011-2) while Jake Muzzin’s lone bout came against Andrew Desjardins in 2012-13, according to Hockey Fights. Does that mean they shouldn’t have dropped the gloves on Wednesday? Milbury and Jones seem to believe that they should have answered the bell.

For more, check out a collection of the early violent moments and Tkachuk’s attempted shot at Doughty. The Kings win is summarized in greater detail here.

Measure of revenge: Kings delay clinching efforts for Flames, Blues

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Deep down, the Los Angeles Kings probably realize that their season will end on game 82. Still, they kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Wednesday night … and managed to spite a team they’re growing to hate.

OK, maybe the hate is almost totally focused upon Matthew Tkachuk, yet the disdain for that talented-but-tormenting rookie was palpable.

It didn’t feel like the Kings exacted physical revenge on Tkachuk, but beating his team 4-1 ranked as classic scoreboard vengeance. With that, the Calgary Flames (and by extension the St. Louis Blues) will need to wait to clinch a playoff berth.

Now, as much as tonight was about Tkachuk, the focus was also on a pugnacious player who once dazzled for the Flames: Jarome Iginla.

In what might be Iginla’s final visit to Calgary – at least as an active NHL player – he was one of the best players on the ice. His fitting curtain call included a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a spirited fight, an assist and a goal.

Seriously, that fight with Deryk Engelland:

That goal included a bit of luck, but hey …

Iginla was named the first star of the contest, and cameras captured his big smile in enjoying a special night. For all the nastiness of that game, it was refreshing to see such a heartwarming moment.

For more on the violence, check out this post on the early stuff and this one on Tkachuk’s missed missile launch on Drew Doughty.

Kings and Canucks will square off in first NHL exhibition games in China

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It’s official: the NHL will hold preseason games in China before next season.

The league made the announcement on Wednesday night: the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will play two exhibitions: one on Sept. 21 (Shanghai) and Sept. 23 (Beijing). How cool is that?

“It is a privilege and an honor for the L.A. Kings to represent the National Hockey League in China as part of these two games against the Vancouver Canucks,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “Growing the game of hockey is something we take great pride in and it is a big priority for our hockey club and AEG as a whole. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our players and our staff, and we are looking forward to the games taking place in two tremendous facilities in two remarkable cities.”

The press conference inspired some jokes tonight.

Some of the best bits came in roping in … Kobe Bryant and David Beckham?

Alrighty then.

Click here for more details.