When in May 2011 the New York Islanders signed Michael Grabner ($15 million) and then Kyle Okposo ($14 million) to similar five-year contract extensions, you perhaps didn't know which was the better deal.
Grabner was fresh off the 34-goal season, but the waiver wire pickup was twice rejected by teams in that calendar year, right? And he only really took off during the second half as part of a super line with Frans Nielsen and Okposo, yes? Meanwhile, Okposo had the draft pedigree, the episodes of "beast mode" (particularly under Scott Gordon, who gave him gobs of minutes), and was limited only by the shoulder injury that halved that season.
Today, which signing was more prescient is no longer a question, and that's not a knock on Okposo. Grabner, in the simplest terms, is one of the top New York Islanders on the ice night after night.
His speed alone has always been an almost comically dangerous asset, but since joining the Islanders (h/t Dale Tallon) Grabner has really honed how to use it to constantly disrupt and unsettle opponents.
In the current season, you can point to his goal total (10, third on the team, with the benefit of only one powerplay goal and very little PP time). You can point to his points: 13, best among forwards not on the first line, despite getting a mish-mash of linemates in this short season -- and again, very little powerplay time. Basically, on the Isles there is the top line which gobbles up the majority of O-zone starts and powerplay time, and then there is Grabner, who produces from wherever.
You can point to his 2:53 of PK time per game, which is 13th overall in the league among forwards and second on the team only to defensive uber-Dane Frans Nielsen. (If the Isles were penalized more, his PK log would likely be higher.)
You can also point to the fact that he is getting third-line minutes with a stew of linemates -- yet still producing -- to understand that Michael Grabner is doing more with less than any Islander not named John Tavares. And even granting Tavares' greatness, the "more with less" topic would make for a good debate.
In advanced stats, you can note Grabner's low O-zone start percentage (45.2%, whereas the top line gets around 60% O-zone starts) and his linemates to help understand his negative Corsi rating.
But the real gold is on the PK, where Grabner and Nielsen are in the top 20 in the league in limiting shots against, and Grabner helps generates more shots on the opposing team's goal while shorthanded than any other forward in the league. In a word, the Islanders' penalty kill is effective in part because Grabner makes teams spend more time on the powerplay worrying about their own net than any team reasonably should. He's a one-man shorthanded scoring chance machine, and he creates many of them from his own zone as he disrupts the opposition's powerplay setup.
Isles fans have had their quibbles with him, particularly after his 34-goal outburst was followed up by "only" 20 goals in 2011-12. But if you dwell on his perceived "poor finishing" -- again, he has 10 goals and is shooting at a career high (and probably unsustainable) 16.4% right now -- then you're missing the forest for the trees.
Question: What other player generates even half the number of breakaway scoring chances as Grabner? What player finishes on even 60% of them? Can you think of one? Have you even seen a current player get enough opportunities for you to make a guess? It's not something that's really tracked, but it's a question worth posing to put some context around the complaint. I watch a lot of NHL hockey and can't think of one current player I'd put in the same conversation as far as generating solo and near-solo chances.
Failure to convert like Pavel Bure is not a good reason to knock a player. It'd be like ripping a player who gets six shots in a game because he only scored on one of them. If a team's best defense against an opponent is to tell itself, "Well, at least he won't score on all his breakaways," then that player is doing something right.
Why The Ice Time Drop?
This topic inevitably leads us back to a common debate among Isles fans in recent weeks: Why isn't Grabner getting more ice time? He's been getting 10-11 minutes per game, quite below his season average that is still almost 16 minutes per game. (The five-year contract should be a strong clue that the franchise values him, but if by some mix-up they do not realize his value, then we're in trouble.)
Is the reduced ice time "banishment" or punishment? I highly doubt it. You don't trust a "banished" player with key PK and 4-on-4 minutes.
As if to answer one subtopic of this question, today the Islanders Twitter feed put this out there, fairly out of the blue:
Grabner's "doing something right" creating chances and shooting the puck according to Coach. "He's playing well for us."
Is it "spreading the offense" or building a "balanced attack" -- a desperate attempt to cobble together four worthwhile lines? Possibly. Particularly as the Isles try, or force feed, his former linemates Nielsen and Okposo with Josh Bailey.
I don't think it's the right call though, at least not to this extreme. Spreading the offense has its merits, but shortening the bench late should not cost you a Grabner. Ultimately, you should be able to get a player like this more than 10 minutes a game, even if several of those minutes are labor-intensive PK shifts -- and you shouldn't limit one of your best player's ice time just because the regular linemates he's carrying are liabilities.
One thing is clear though: There aren't many players who can drop to the third line in this way and still produce in limited minutes, still elevate a cast of lesser rotating linemates. Michael Grabner is one of those players.