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Magazine > NHL ATHLETE
As seen in the Fall 2011 issue.

Grabbing Greatness
Michael Grabner shrugged off rejection twice to fashion a 30-goal campaign and a Calder Trophy nomination.
By Dennis Bernstein | Photos by Max Cohen

NEW YORK is a long way from Villach, Austria, where, as a five-year-old, Islanders right winger Michael Grabner began playing hockey. After an impressive start, he developed well through his teens, clocking in one season with his hometown team, EC Villacher SV before he decided, at 17, to leave for North America and match his skill against greater competition.

Austria is not exactly a hockey hotbed; last year Grabner, Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, and Philadelphia's Andreas Nodl were the only Austrians in the NHL. But that didn't stop the left-hander from taking his chances. Luckily, the move to North America paid off right away, as he was selected 14th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

But although he had solid numbers in both his junior and AHL seasons, Grabner couldn't secure a spot with the Vancouver varsity given their depth along the forward wall. An impressive 20-game trial during the 2009-10 season raised his market value and as a result he was included in a package that brought Keith Ballard to Vancouver. Traded to a non-contender in Florida, the thought was that he would fit in well with a young team in need of offence. Up until that point in his career, the rap against Grabner was that although he possessed world-class skill, his consistency from shift to shift wasn't there. Last season's training camp results proved that to be true and he was ticketed for a return to the minors before fate took a hand for the better.

The New York Islanders had suffered a setback when power forward Kyle Okposo went down in training camp with a shoulder injury that wound up sidelining him for half the season. General Manager Garth Snow scoured the waiver wire to find a replacement and Grabner's name popped up. Aware of his size and speed, Snow pulled the trigger on the acquisition. With the timing of the move so near to the start of the season, then-coach Scott Gordon was cautious as camp came to a close. "Immediately you'll notice his skating," he said at the time. "He made some plays today in practice that show his skill level, so being able to put it all together in a game, we'll find out soon enough."

That utterance should have ended up as a finalist for the NHL understatement of the year.

"When I first heard I was claimed on waivers, I thought to myself, 'not again.' I went to Florida with a great attitude and I'm not sure why things didn't work," Grabner revealed.

After sitting out the first two regular season games to get acclimated to his new surroundings, he eventually found chemistry with Danish centre Frans Nielsen.

"At first, I was paired with Doug Weight and Nino Niederreiter, but Nino wound up getting sent down to the minors. I was paired with Frans when the line split up and he's such a great player. He has the ability to draw two players to him in the offensive zone so I can get in position to score. A lot of my success this past season was due to him," he said, deferentially.

The pairing's magic produced a shocking 34-goal campaign and though most top goal scorers get rich off of their powerplay production, Grabner's season was unique given that he only scored two on the man-advantage.

"I don't know why the numbers came out that way, I really didn't play full time on the powerplay until the last 10 games of the season, I hope it changes this year."

On the way to a Calder nomination -- symbolizing the NHL's best rookie -- he won the Speed Skating Competition at the All Star Game, was named NHL Rookie of the Month for February 2011, and made the NHL All Rookie Team. Just weeks after the season ended, Snow completed the Cinderella story by presenting Grabner with a five-year deal that will pay him $3 million annually.

"I haven't bought anything yet because I've signed the contract only, we don't get paid until the season starts," he admits with a sheepish grin.

Grabner returns to Austria every summer, though his future home appears to be in the U.S. "I love playing for the Islanders and living on the Island. Since we've signed a nice long deal, we'll start house hunting real soon."

With a full season with the Islanders under his belt and his future secure, Grabner is poised to be among the NHL's leading goal scorers this year.


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