Why Michael Grabner is *our* Calder Trophy winner

"...This will end up being a 1-2 battle between Skinner and Couture when the Professional Hockey Writers' Association votes come in. It's totally a toss-up and both kids deserve the award, but I'll go with the player who added defensive responsibilities to his game on top of the offense he provided."

>>Pierre LeBrun, ESPN.com [emphasis mine]

I apologize in advance for not using this platform afforded me to campaign harder for Michael Grabner's compelling Calder Trophy candidacy. But as I've mentioned in the past, I just can't put much stock in voted NHL awards. They make for pretty hardware and contract bonuses (and reflect the dominant "story" of a season), but they can often be explained the same way you explain how Paris Hilton sells ... uh, whatever she sells: Someone had the right media buzz or advocate at the right time. It's not clear how PHWA voters (or GMs, or broadcasters, depending on the award) vote and why, but too often their apparent rationale does not impress.

This is not to pick on ESPN's two main hockey writers; rather, their rationales are just an easy example of what I'm talking about.

What is More Defensively Responsible than the Penalty Kill?

Is the penalty kill a defensive responsibility, do you think? Because Michael Grabner spent about a minute and a half on the PK per game this season, and you know what his shorthanded plus/minus (if there were such a thing for shorthanded situations) was in all that time? Even. Zero. Grabner was on the ice for seven shorthanded goals for, and seven opposition powerplay (5-on-4) goals against. He scored six of those shorties himself. (Skinner saw basically zero PK time, while Couture averaged 1:04 per game.)

 

Zone Starts: Wait, Who Has Defensive Responsi-what Now?

Grabner played with Frans Nielsen for most of the season. Which means he drew the toughest assignments on the team and started shifts in his own zone more than most (only 46.6% of his shifts began in the O-zone...Jeff Skinner and Logan Couture were both at 51.3%). This is what you do with a defensively competent player.

(By the way, if you're into this, Grabner's plus/minus on a team whose goal differential was minus-35? Only +13. Skinner was +3 on a team whose differential was minus-3. Couture was +18 on a team whose differential was +35. I'm just saying.)

 

Clutchy McClutcherton: My Team Has more Clutch Goals than Y-- Duh, Winning!

When the Sharks were floundering earlier this season, it was Couture who provided clutch performances in spite of his youthfulness.

>>Scott Burnside, same article

I have no idea what that means, but I bet it has to do with Couture's eight "game-winning" goals for a team that won 48 games, while Grabner "only" had three for a team that won 30 games and Skinner had two for a team that won 40. (You know how "game-winning" goals are marked, right?) Again, Grabner was put in every situation "despite his youthfulness" too.

Regardless, I do know that Grabner was, along with Frans Nielsen, among the top two Islanders forwards by almost any measure you can imagine save for points, where John Tavares (and his 50.7% O-zone start and 3:30 per game PP time) led the team. Grabner, by contrast, saw just 54 second per game of PP time, much of it late in the season and on the unfamiliar point. (Tavares and linemates Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau continued to get the bulk of up-front PP minutes. Meanwhile, Skinner saw 3:10 per game on the PP and Couture saw 2:11.)

 

Why the Narrative Doesn't Fit the Reality

Again, this isn't to pick on ESPN -- they're typical of countless pundits trying to make heads or tails of a league where you can't possibly watch all 30 teams with any thorough sense of reality. I get that. Pundits have to take shortcuts; often, that shortcut relies on the narrative tales of their brethren. ("I'm telling you, like Todd McLellan totally trusts Couture. Totally.")  The Islanders happen to not have many "brethren" covering their narrative (nor voting on awards, as it happens, this year), so Graner's actual usage by his coach is, in a given year, as likely to be discovered as dark matter.

Which is why I don't put too much stock in NHL awards, although they are fun to debate. And frankly, I don't mind if people credit Skinner more because he's a munchkin playing in a man's league at age 18; that's pretty impressive, and most 18-year-olds in this league are frankly in over their head. (I do think it's a bit of a reach to credit 22-year-old Couture, who played 25 games with San Jose last year, for being young while ignoring 23-year-old Grabner.) I was among those who thought 31-year-old Sergei Makarov never should have won the Calder (prompting the league to put an age max on the trophy), so I get the whole subjective nature of this entire process.

But if the conversation is about rookie forwards this year, voters should at least know this: Grabner led the league in rookie goals, was third in points, all while facing the toughest defensive assignments among standout rookie forwards and only getting to goose his offensive numbers with four PP points (Skinner had 18 PP points, Couture had 14). It seems either because Grabner didn't have the buzz early or because he was on a team that was off the radar all season, that he never garnered serious consideration and instead got the late-season, superficial, "oh he scored some and should be mentioned, too, but my mind was made up and I have a flight to catch" treatment.

If you think someone else deserves the Calder, that's fantastic and is your right. Just, please: Take a look at what actually happened before you tell your version of the story.

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