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