Grabner's Third Year Must Be a Charm
It goes mostly without saying that Michael Grabner has his work cut out for him this year.
The versatile winger was a relative unknown coming onto the Isles' scene from Florida in 2010. After he skated his way into All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, then onto the Calder Trophy ballot with 34 goals and 52 points, Isles fans were enamored with his speed, his skill, everything.
Fast forward to the start (we hope) of 2012-13, where Grabner may not be so much in Isles fans' good graces. He went from speedy offensive threat to non-factor for half of the season, and many of the 20 goals he managed to score were empty-netters or fluff to pad an already sizable lead.
So let's ask the predictable question... what happened?
It's easy to attribute this to a sophomore slump, and maybe that's accurate. It's also abstract. What can we really "credit" with keeping the Gremlin tame?
- The glaring lack of breakaway conversions. With as many times as Grabner was able to sneak behind his defender, he still can't score a goal easily -- and that has been made ever more obvious since last season, when he was barely scoring any other way either. Say what you will about his speed, since no one will ever debate that, but it still looks as though his hands have some catching up to do. He needs to work on stickhandling and making better placement decisions, as well as controlling his speed so that he has room to shoot once he gets to the goalie.
- Fewer offensive zone starts. As Lighthouse Hockey pointed out first, Grabner had a real lack of offensive zone starts this past season. This argument is a little shaky, given that in his rookie year he had only 44.3% of his starts from the offensive zone and managed to do just fine... but a 2% drop in 2011-12 may have altered things a bit
- Fewer shots. If you get fewer shots, then you get fewer goals. Enough said.
- Tougher minutes. Looking at the Corsi numbers for Grabner and other Isles forwards, his Relative Quality of Competition jumped from .557 to .888 over the course of a year. Linemate Frans Nielsen's was also high, at .869. (In comparison, the top line of Moulson-Tavares-Parenteau topped out with Parenteau at .710 RelQoC. For a breakdown of what the terms mean, look here.)
Obviously, there was a lot of defensive play involved in Grabner's minutes, and when you factor in his and Nielsen's PK minutes relative to the rest of the Isles forwards, it's easy to see why neither of them scored very much; however, while Nielsen is a defensive forward by trade, you have to wonder if Grabner is really benefiting from playing so much two-way hockey. Either way, both players' plus-minuses dropped through the floor this past year as well, so maybe both could benefit from a little break.
- Wily opposing defensemen and coaches. If you're smart, you'll realize that positioning is key when trying to stop a blue and orange streak like Michael Grabner. While he still got a decent number of 1-on-0 chances, more often we saw him get tied up with a defender to slow down the play. Hockey players might look a little dumb, but they catch on pretty quickly.
- His rookie year also managed to be a contract year. Players always manage to pull off everything but the kitchen sink in order to get the best deal available to them. This isn't a knock on Grabner's abilities; it's just how things go.
- Off-ice... just personal business. He's got a fiancee. He's got a child. Whether you're an average Joe in a cubicle or an NHLer, you have your obligations as a parent. Perhaps everything combined put some stress on Grabner during his first year as a dad.
Basically, Grabner's been given a lot more responsibility since his rookie year, and like anything else in life, it's taken some adjusting. The fact that he still managed a 20-goal season is encouraging, but for a guy who's got a fairly long-term, fairly big-money deal now, we need a little more from him. Here's to hoping he'll deliver in 2012-13.