Tuesday, 19 April 2011

When Given A Chance

This is by no means an endorsement of one candidate over another, but when it was announced today that former Manitoba Moose forward Michael Grabner had been named as a Calder Trophy candidate after his spectacular season on Long Island, it made me proud of the work that he did with the Moose and the opportunities given to him by the Moose. While it is a little difficult seeing Grabner nominated as a member of the New York Islanders and not the Vancouver Canucks, I understand the business side of the game well enough to know that moving Grabner was right for the Canucks at the time. I'm happy, though, that Grabner's hard work in Manitoba has finally blossomed into a full-time NHL career, and the possibility of having him turn into a superstar is very real.

There were times during his stay in Manitoba that Grabner showed flashes of brilliance: speed, soft hands, and a nose for the net. Grabner was undoubtedly a speed demon in Manitoba, routinely taking off down the boards and beating defencemen to loose pucks in the offensive zone. Those soft hands resulted in 67 goals for the Moose over parts of four seasons, but Grabner would occasionally disappear for a number of games between goals. As frustrating as this was, you could see that he had a future ahead of him in the NHL even if it may not be on a first or second line.

Grabner looked like he might get a shot with the Canucks after posting two solid seasons of AHL hockey, especially after posting 17 points in 20 AHL playoff games in helping the Moose to the Calder Cup Final. In his first call-up with the Canucks in 2009-10, Grabner scored his first NHL goal on October 14, 2009 when he beat Antti Niemi of the Chicago Blackhawks. An off-ice ankle injury would derail that call-up just nine games in, but the speedy Austrian would return later in the year after recovering and reconditioning in Manitoba.

Upon his return to the Canucks line-up, Grabner played very well, and looked like he had found a spot on the Canucks roster. He picked up his first NHL hat trick on April 2, 2010 against the Anaheim Ducks. He followed that up by beating Antti Niemi for his first career NHL playoff goal on May 1, 2010.

It was the business side of the NHL that sent him from Vancouver to the Florida Panthers, though. At the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Grabner and Steve Bernier were dealt to the Panthers for Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich - two players that have contributed in big way to Vancouver's success this season. While it was disappointing for me to see Grabner leaving after his time in both Manitoba and Vancouver, this deal made the Canucks stronger and potentially would make Manitoba stronger.

I fully expected, after the season he turned in with the Canucks, to see Michael Grabner somewhere on the top two lines in Florida to start season. It was completely unfathomable to see him being placed on waivers after what Florida gave up to get Grabner, but GM Dale Tallon and coach Peter de Boer wanted him down in Rochester to get some additional AHL time. Being that he had to clear waivers, there was a chance he could get claimed by another NHL team, especially after the work he did in Vancouver and the talent he showed in his short time in the NHL.

Sure enough, October 5 saw the New York Islanders claim the 23 year-old on his birthday, and Grabner was off to Long Island as a member of the New York Islanders. While his season started slowly in the points category, the lessons he had learned as member of the Canucks and Moose began to show. He used that blazing speed to create room and cause defenders and goalies headaches. Those soft hands began to find the net regularly, and his work amongst the other young Islanders such as P.A. Parenteau, Matt Moulson, and John Tavares was incredible in terms of their chemistry.

Again, I'm not endorsing one candidate over another. Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks had fabulous seasons as much as Michael Grabner did, and they are deserving of the award as much as Grabner is. The difference for me, though, is that I've had a chance to watch Grabner grow as a player and person, and that's the point of this article.

Grabner is one of the nicest guys in hockey I've had the chance of meeting, and he really seems to enjoy the interaction with the fans. His Twitter feed, @Grabs40, is always being updated, and he frequently checks it for questions. He has a sharp sense of humour and loves the occasional prank, and, for a guy coming into his own as an NHL star, he really appears to have found his groove with the fans.

To think that he was a shy Austrian kid when he first got to Winnipeg is a long way off now. And here's hoping that the youngster from Villach, Austria continues to makes strides in the NHL. His nomination for the Calder Trophy might be the start of a long and prosperous career if he continues to work as hard as he did this past season.

This is why I love the AHL: when hard-working, talented players are given a chance at the next level, you usually come away pretty proud as a fan to have watched those players in their formative years.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

mtjaws said...

With my Panthers in the midst of a significant rebuilding effort, it is tough to see Grabner do so well for the Islanders. I know he was unimpressive in training camp, so Tallon wanted him in the minors, but to see him given away for nothing is unfortunate.

I know he had a great season though, and is deserving of this nomination. I just think Skinner will win the trophy though. And may Florida not lose out on great talent again!