When Michael Grabner signed a free agent deal this past summer with the New York Rangers, the team’s general manager, Jeff Gorton, spoke about how the veteran winger was a player head coach Alain Vigneault could use up and down the lineup, one that could fill a top-six role just as well as a bottom-six one.
General managers and coaches tend to say these things about good, hard-working players they have just acquired; but in all reality, Gorton, Vigneault, and the rest of the Rangers brass saw Grabner as a smart veteran who could infuse high-end speed and penalty killing talents to a lineup that lacked in both areas a year ago.
However, nine games into the season, Grabner might just be proving his GM a soothsayer.
After scoring just nine goals in 80 games with Toronto a year ago, Grabner is off to a flying start on Broadway with five goals and an assist in nine contests. That total is padded by his tour de force hat trick against the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night at Madison Square Garden; but take note that Grabner did record seasons of 34 and 20 goals with the New York Islanders earlier in his career, so the strong offensive start is not completely out of the blue.
Grabner is a capable offensive threat. It’s just that in recent years he has morphed more into a role player as opposed to the offensive threat he started out to be on the Island.
This season started on the right foot as Grabner, playing on the fourth line, recorded the Blueshirts’ first goal of the season, sprinting to the net to convert a rebound. Two games later he scored again, creating a turnover and converting it into an empty net goal.
Injuries among the forward group forced some line juggling by the Rangers and Grabner moved up to the third line. Vigneault recently settled on J.T. Miller as the right winger on this line with Kevin Hayes in the middle and Grabner on the left. Though technically not a top-six forward position, Grabner should create more offense on this line, and has done just that.
The line of Grabner-Hayes-Miller scored four goals and totaled nine points in Sunday’s 6-1 win over Tampa Bay. Grabner’s speed opens up the ice for the other two, plus he has flashed his old form offensively, hungry to create opportunities for himself and his linemates. In addition, Grabner is the defensive conscious of this line, setting a strong two-way example for his younger ‘mates.
Don’t Mess With a Good Thing
With Chris Kreider returning to the lineup Tuesday when the Rangers host the St. Louis Blues, there was speculation that Kreider would return to his spot on the No. 1 line with Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello, and that a trickle down effect would take place with rookie Pavel Buchnevich sliding to the third line and Grabner back in his fourth-line role.
However, Vigneault is sticking with that old adage of “Don’t mess with a good thing”, meaning that the Grabner-Hayes-Miller line will remain intact and Buchnevich will skate with Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast on the fourth line against the Blues in order to accommodate the return of Kreider.
When made public by the coach, this decision elicited some howls from the Blueshirt Faithful, enamored with Buchnevich and his impressive skill set, and belief it is a set back in his development to play a fourth-line role and minutes.
In the big picture, assuming all forwards stay healthy, Grabner and Buchnevich at some point will likely switch spots in the lineup, with the Russian rookie moving up and Grabner sliding back in with Pirri and Fast. Oscar Lindberg and Josh Jooris, when healthy again, will also be in the mix.
For now, the coach is riding the hot hand, and Grabner deserves the chance to remain with Hayes and Miller and build on the excellent chemistry he has developed with them. As Vigneault explained Monday, Buchnevich, like Pirri, gets extra minutes because he plays on the power play, so it’s not like his growth is being so stunted.
The Real Effect
Whether or not Grabner plays on the third or fourth line, or even earns a chance further up the ladder if his production continues to swell, is not the main point when it comes to the 29-year-old Austrian. The real effect of Grabner’s acquisition is in how his speed, smarts and skill have so greatly helped the Rangers play with the pace Vigneault sought heading into this season. The veteran has helped set a new tone and more aggressive style of play on his new team with his solid play in his own end of the rink, quick, smart decision-making in the neutral zone, and blazing speed to jump-start the offensive game.
It has made Grabner’s two-year deal seem like a steal for Gorton already.
Now the trick is to maintain this high level of play the entire season.