UNIONDALE – Unlike most NHL teams, the New York Islanders do not hold an annual skills competition. Stop it, now. That’s not nice.
“We don’t want to give our skill away,” reasoned Islanders winger Michael Grabner.
Not having a skills competition saves the Islanders the formality of declaring Grabner the fastest skater every year. Now if he were just good enough to win the breakaway competition, you’d have a perennial 50-goal scorer. No player on the Islanders and few in the league create more opportunities for themselves with their sheer speed than Grabner.
There are some players who can skate as though they have jet packs in their skates, but many of them falter at the NHL level because that’s the only skill they have. Grabner certainly isn’t that kind of player, but you have to wonder what kind of production he’d experience if he could finish more of the chances he creates.
“The only reason I’m here is because of my speed,” Grabner said. “My game has always been based on my speed. I’m not the heaviest guy in the league, so I have to try to use the speed to my advantage to get to loose pucks and make some room for me and my linemates.”
That aspect of his game was certainly on display Monday afternoon in the Islanders first win of the season, a 4-3 triumph over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his quick feet that gave him a breakaway goal to put the Islanders up 1-0 and a quick stick that intercepted a Martin St-Louis pass to Steven Stamkos that led to the Islanders second goal, by Matt Martin coming out of the penalty box.
Nobody is expecting much out of the Islanders this season, but if they can play an up-tempo pressure game the way they did for much of the time against the Lightning, they’ll undoubtedly make strides. And a big part of that energy and explosiveness comes down to a player such as Grabner, who is on the second line along with Frans Nielsen and Brad Boyes. That line has to take some of the scoring pressure off the Matt Moulson-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo unit and it can do that with Grabner returning to the form he showed two seasons ago when he scored 34 goals.
After his breakout season, Grabner took a big step back last year, scoring just 20 goals and registering an ugly minus-18. And remember how we talked about players with speed who are limited because that’s the only tool in their arsenal? Well, that’s a little of what Grabner experienced last season.
“I think other teams began to know what my game was based on,” Grabner said. “I was consistent and I was a little too predictable.”
Grabner found last season that defense units began to play him much more passively, hanging back in order to take away his speed advantage. Suddenly, bolting down the wing at warp speed wasn’t working as well anymore. So, he needed to adjust by finding ways to get to the net, which means using his foot-speed to beat defensemen to the outside. He also has to find a way to get behind defensemen and use his speed to create room for his linemates.
“You can’t just do the same thing, go down the wing as fast as you can every time,” he said. “You have to switch it up, slow down the game a couple of times, try to make plays and get in front of the net. Go to the hard areas and maybe score some garbage goals.”
Grabner has noticed that he has to make decisions much quicker in North America than in Europe. When he makes a move in the NHL, he has far less time to make a decision about what he’s going to do with the puck. In the best league in the world, you can’t just make things up as you go along, which means he has to know what he’s going to do long before he can see the whites of the goalie’s eyes.
“In Europe, you can almost slow down when you get to the net because you have so much time,” he said. “Here, you take a couple of steps after the blueline and you’re at the goalie. You have to have a couple of moves that you work on in practice.”