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.

Sidney Crosby makes emphatic statement in best player debate

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Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid.

That has been the discussion some folks around NHL have been trying to hold regarding which one of them is the new best player in the NHL.

Well, Sidney Crosby would like to remind you that … yeah … it might still be him.

If nothing else, he has made a pretty compelling argument for himself over the past week.

Crosby scored his first two goals of the season on Tuesday night to help lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to a wild 6-5 win over McDavid and the Oilers.

It’s not that McDavid didn’t also show up in this game; because he did, scoring a goal and assisting on another. But Crosby delivered the emphatic punch in overtime when he scored one of the most ridiculous goals of the season (so far) when he completely obliterated Ryan Strome (not a defenseman! And he was tired at the end of extended shift!) and did this … with McDavid standing right next to it all.

My goodness.

This has been a fascinating week for Crosby as it relates to the “best player” debate, because his past two games have come against Toronto (Matthews) and Edmonton (McDavid) and he spent an awful lot of ice-time going head-to-head against both of them.

For the most part, he completely dominated them.

On Thursday night in Toronto he spent eight minutes of even-strength ice-time going against Matthews (more than any other Toronto forward).

Not only did Matthews fail to record a point or a shot, the Maple Leafs as a team didn’t even get a shot on goal during those minutes.

Over the two games total Crosby spent more than 20 minutes of even-strength ice-time going head-to-head against McDavid and Matthews. During those minutes the Penguins scored the only goal (Crosby’s overtime winner on Tuesday) and controlled more than 65 percent of the shot attempts.

At this point Sidney Crosby has entered the “latter day Steve Yzerman” phase of his career.

When Yzerman was a young player in Detroit he was such a monster offensively that if he played in any other era that didn’t have Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing at the exact same time he probably would have been regarded as the best offensive player in the league.

He was incredible.

Then around the time he hit his 30th birthday the offense started to drop off. It was — and still is — often times looked at as him sacrificing offense to improve his defense for the betterment of the team; but the more likely explanation is that he just got a little older and simply was not capable of scoring 120 points anymore.

So his game evolved and he became a ferocious two-way player that could take over games in other ways.

This is where Sidney Crosby is now.

He is in his age 31 season, and as such he is simply not going to be the offensive force he was when he was 24 or 25. He is still going to be capable of doing things like he did on Tuesday night when he ruined Ryan Strome’s night and posterized him, but he is not going to be the 110-point scoring champion every year. I mean, he has been an 89-point player pretty much four years in a row, and while that is still in the top 1 percent of the entire league, it is probably not going to result in a scoring title. This is what he is as an offensive player at this point, and that is fine.

But he is going to find other ways to impact the game and dominate it even when he is not lighting up the score sheet the way he once did. That is pretty much what he did the past two games when he went against the latest two players the hockey world has attempted to elevate above him, and completely outplayed them. If your best player can go against the other team’s best player and shut them down and cancel them out, you are going to have a lot of success.

He is also still on occasion going to do things like that overtime winner on Tuesday night.

(Stats in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Sharks storm back, stun Predators with late rally

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Tuesday’s game in Nashville seemed like it could have been a potential Western Conference Final preview between the San Jose Sharks and Predators, and for 50 minutes it looked like the Predators were going to continue to assert their dominance as the elite team in the conference.

Maybe they still are and ultimately still will be, but on this particular night everything fell apart for them in the blink of an eye as they let two points slip away in the standings.

The Sharks scored three consecutive goals in the final 10 minutes of regulation, including two less than 40 seconds apart to erase a two-goal deficit, to come back for a stunning 5-4 win.

Brent Burns‘ goal with just 2:52 to play proved to be the game-winner, and it was made possible thanks to quick goals from Brendan Dillon and Joe Pavelski just a few minutes earlier to tie the game.

Burns’ goal can be seen in the video above.

Here are the two goals to tie the game.

After acquiring Erik Karlsson over the summer and re-signing Evander Kane to a long-term contract extension the Sharks, a team that was already good enough to make the second-round of the playoffs a year ago, entered the season as one of the hot picks to win the Western Conference this season and compete for the Stanley Cup.

Through their first eight games entering play on Tuesday they had been a little inconsistent but it seems they may be starting to hit their stride a little bit. The win in Nashville is their third in a row and comes on the road against one of the league’s best teams. After winning the Western Conference two years ago, then taking the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago as the NHL’s best team during the regular season, the Predators stormed out of the gate again this season with wins in seven of their first eight games, and looking particularly dominant in the process.

Tuesday’s game was a great test for both teams, and all they did was show that they are two evenly matched, great rosters that are going to have a chance to play very far into the spring.

If this game was any preview of what is to come it would be one heck of a best-of-seven series (if it happens).

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins rookie Vaakanainen concussed by Borowiecki; Discipline coming?

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Already playing without a couple of defenders (Torey Krug, Kevan Miller) the Boston Bruins lost another one on Tuesday night when rookie Urho Vaakanainen, playing in just his second NHL game, had to leave their game against the Ottawa Senators after he was elbowed in the face by Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki during a scramble around the front of the Ottawa net.

The Bruins later announced that Vaakanainen has already been diagnosed with a concussion.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was not penalized on the play, but that is not a good look for Borowieckiy because you can clearly see him look at Vaakanainen as he skates in and deliberately raise his elbow to hit him in the head.

I get that the front of the net is a tough area, but this isn’t 1980 anymore and that type of needless play should not be looked at as “okay” just because there is a scramble.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will almost certainly review that play and he could be be facing some discipline for it. If the NHL determines it is a play worthy of discipline that could be bad news for Borowiecki because he has been suspended once before and the player on the receiving end of his hit was injured. Those two things always factor into the punishment.

Vaakanainen was the selected by the Bruins in the first-round of the 2017 draft with the No. 18 overall pick.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Winning streaks on the line as Predators host Sharks

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Pekka Rinne is on injured reserved, opening the door for Juuse Saros to take the reins as the starting goalie for the Predators. When Nashville hosts the Sharks on Tuesday, it’ll be the first time that the 23-year-old netminder will have started consecutive games in his young NHL career.

Saros has 46 starts in his career, and working with Rinne for the past couple of seasons has provided him plenty of confidence to handle an extended workload when called up.

“Juuse is very calm,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette via the Tennessean. “He’s got a great guy to sit next to him in the room in Pekka. Approaches life the same way. They lead with their work ethic.”

As the Predators look to extend their five-game winning streak, they’ll face a Sharks team have won two in a row and scored nine goals over their last two games. Logan Couture has scored four of those nine goals and is one of the bevy of weapons that head coach Peter DeBoer can deploy every night.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

WHAT: San Jose Sharks at Nashville Predators
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, October 23rd, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVESTREAM: You can watch the Sharks-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Evander KaneJoe PavelskiKevin Labanc
Tomas Hertl – Logan Couture – Timo Meier
Marcus SorensenAntti SuomelaJoonas Donskoi
Barclay GoodrowRourke ChartierMelker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard VlasicErik Karlsson
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokNick BoninoRyan Hartman
Zac RinaldoColton SissonsFrederick Gaudreau

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Dan HamhuisYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Juuse Saros

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