In the early part of the 2010s, there wasn’t much to cheer about for the New York Islanders.
The franchise was still in its rebuilding stages. Nassau Coliseum was an eyesore. And the team was at the bottom of the barrel in the Eastern Conference.
But for all those dark days, one of the brighter parts was the ascension of Michael Grabner, who played five seasons on Long Island.
A former first-round pick — 14th overall — by the Vancouver Canucks, Grabner struggled to find his footing in the NHL after spending three years in the minors. At the 2010 draft, he was traded from Vancouver to the Florida Panthers as a part of a multi-player transaction. Grabner attended the Panthers’ training camp, but failed to make the team. This led to him being waived, set to be assigned to Florida’s AHL affiliate in Rochester.
On his 23rd birthday to be exact, October 5, 2010, the Islanders decided to claim the Grabner after forward Kyle Okposo suffered a shoulder injury in training camp that would require surgery. Veteran d-man Mark Streit also was sidelined with a shoulder injury that happened during camp that cost him the entire season.
“Michael is a former first round selection and a talented winger who has tremendous offensive ability,” said former-Islanders general manager Garth Snow the day the organization claimed him.
It didn’t take long for the Austrian native to show why Snow made the savvy decision to pick him up.
Grabner recorded his first point as an Islander in his third game and his first goal as in his fifth game. From that point, Grabner was off to the races, literally and figuratively.
By the time January came, Grabner had moved up the ranks as one of the premier rookies in the league. He became a threat at even strength and shorthanded; Grabner tallied a whopping six shorthanded goals during the year. And his incredible speed garnered him league-wide attention.
Participating in the SuperSkills competition at All-Star Weekend, Grabner won the Fastest Skater competition with times of 14.0 and 14.2 seconds. He followed that memorable weekend up with ten goals and 16 points in February — the most of any freshman during that month — and a six-game goal scoring streak, the longest by a rookie since the Pens’ Evgeni Malkin in 2006-07.
That excellent run earned him rookie of the month honors.
When that season came to an end the Isles had not qualified for the postseason, but Grabner’s electric season — 34 goals and 52 points — earned him consideration for the Calder Memorial Trophy. Despite leading all rookies in that goal category, Grabner would finish third in the voting, losing out to the Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner. The Islanders also awarded Grabner for his fantastic campaign with a five-year, $15 million deal.
Grabner would once again eclipse the 20-goal plateau the following season and was once again a breakaway machine. He also evolved into one of the better penalty killers in the league.
The lockout shortened 2012-13 season was a revival of sorts for the Islanders and one of Grabner’s more underrated seasons. In 45 games, Grabner notched 16 goals — second-most behind John Tavares’ 28 — and 21 points. He helped lead the Isles back to the postseason for the first time in six seasons.
The Isles would push the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games, where they would lose the series in OT. Grabner amassed four points in that series, and it looked as if he was set to breakout.
2013-14 ended up being a disappointing season all around for Grabner and the Isles. The team couldn’t build off their success from the previous spring and missed the postseason. Grabner himself, missed 15 games due to injury and only found the net 12 times all year. His one lone bright spot came in late February, when he accomplished the rare feat of scoring two goals on the same penalty kill against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That would be Grabner’s last great moment in orange and blue as he was riddled with injuries the entire 2014-15 campaign, only seeing the ice 34 times that season.
Snow dealt Grabner to Toronto a month prior to the start of the 2015-16 season. Since then, he’s made the rounds with the rival Rangers, Devils, and upstart Arizona Coyotes, for whom he is playing for now.
Grabner’s tenure on Long Island is still talked about even after he left. Some will classify him as a one-hit wonder; turns out he wasn’t. A fan favorite with his lightning-quick speed and ability to turn any opportunity into a breakaway, the Islanders were lucky to have him for the time they did.
The Isles have been lucky the past few years to have some speed demons of their own in Nick Leddy and Mathew Barzal. But before they came, it was Grabner.
And for that, he’s one of the most underappreciated players to ever come across the franchise.