It is hard to believe this is the same guy who once told reporters he was going to throw his sticks in the garbage. A player who started last season with a 22-game goal drought and then endured a 30-gamer before it ended. A guy who joked that an opposing team had the “Grabners” after struggling to score on breakaways.
To see Michael Grabner now is to see a man who has been through some trials and emerged stronger on the other side.
“My head’s a little clearer,” he said. “Like more confidence, just going out there and playing.”
Grabner resurrected his career by scoring 27 goals for the New York Rangers this season and he’s continued that production with another four in the playoffs. The Ottawa Senators have certainly been on high alert every time his lightning-fast skates touch the ice in their second-round series.
Despite that, he’s broken free for several breakaways and registered points in the last four games.
The 29-year-old briefly appeared to have ended Game 5 in overtime at Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday afternoon before it was ruled he tipped the puck with a high stick.
His impact certainly exceeds what you’d expect from a depth forward. Grabner’s primary responsibility is the penalty kill – New York allowed just seven 4-on-5 goals in his 124 minutes during the regular season – but he’s also become a weapon at 5-on-5 for a team that strikes often in transition.
“I’ve seen what I think we’ve seen from him all year long,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “He’s getting some looks because of that speed. He’s getting some Grade A looks. He’s been in on the forecheck, he’s been finishing checks and he’s been a real effective player for us.
“We need him to continue.”
New York trails Ottawa 3-2 heading into Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
Grabner’s decision to sign a $3.3-million, two-year deal with the Rangers last July 1 didn’t grab too many headlines. The New York Post proclaimed that the team had gone shopping in the “bargain bin.”
That was largely due to the fact Grabner was coming off a star-crossed 2015-16 season in Toronto – where he scored only nine goals for an organization that cycled through an incredible 46 players while positioning itself for strong odds in the Auston Matthews draft lottery.
It was there that Grabner took to gallows humour, particularly after his 30-game goal drought ended on a breakaway in Detroit where the puck ricocheted in off his backside.
Well that was just how I practiced it..I will take it tho and glad it didn’t come to a penalty shot with my 0% success rate #usethat
Looks like @DetroitRedWings got the “grabners” today..must have gone to the same breakaway school #harderthanitlooks #stonehands
Jokes aside, the versatile winger believes the seeds for this strong campaign were planted in Toronto. After arriving in a trade from the New York Islanders during training camp, Leafs coach Mike Babcock encouraged him to use his speed and good stick to push for offensive chances like he had earlier in his career.
That provided a confidence boost for a player who had become pigeon-holed as a defensive specialist.
“I was talking to Babs a lot,” said Grabner. “He saw me play a lot before so he just wanted me to go out there and use my offensive instincts as well. I think towards the end of the season (in Toronto) I was getting a lot of chances and just the puck wasn’t going in.
“But I felt better about my game and it just kind of carried over.”
With the benefit of hindsight, he looks like a player that got away from the Leafs.
Babcock remains a big Grabner fan – “We would’ve loved to have kept him,” the coach said earlier this season – but they were reticent to take a roster spot away from one of their emerging young forwards. They were also committing $10 million and four years to free-agent winger Matt Martin – twice the term and $850,000 more per year than Grabner ended up receiving from the Rangers.
The easy-going Austrian would love to have stayed, but holds no ill feelings about how things played out.
“We were open to anything,” he said of last summer’s free-agent period. “We were talking to them, but obviously we knew also what kind of direction they wanted to go in with younger guys and kind of rebuilding and getting a team that’s going to be good for a while.
“I enjoyed my time there, but obviously I picked a good team.”
The Rangers are better for it.