Michael Grabner's breakout with New York Rangers no surprise to former Maple Leafs linemates

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Friday, January 20, 2017

TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored nine goals in 80 games for the tanking-for-Auston MatthewsToronto Maple Leafslast season.

While seeing the winger, now 29, on pace for a career-high 35 goals this season with the New York Rangersmight come as a shock to many, it isn't to his former teammates here.

"I'm not surprised at all,'' said Maple Leafs centerNazem Kadri -- Grabner's former linemate -- on Thursday. "He had a ton of chances last year. It seems like he had a breakaway every single game. He's always had that goal-scoring potential in him. He scored 30-plus goals before. With that incredible speed he has and how good his stick is -- he comes up top and forces the defenseman to make bad plays. He's just unbelievable at that.''

It's this kind of potential that prompted veteran Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello to pull the trigger on a September 2015 trade with the New York Islanders to land Grabner.

While the offense never really materialized on a 30th-place Leafs team last season, the signs were there that Grabner was beginning to rediscover himself.

"It was on its way," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "[Grabner] got so many chances. He was snake-bitten. But he got his confidence back.''

But because Toronto was rebuilding and needed to make room for the next generation of players, Grabner was allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent last summer.

"Grabby is a guy we really liked here; he did a real good job for us," Babcock said. "We would have loved to have kept him, but we felt that, with the wingers we had coming, one of these kids wouldn't have gotten the ice time.''

No hard feelings either way. Grabner is grateful to the Leafs for giving him a fresh start and allowing him to rediscover his game, even if the goals weren't there.

"Last year I was getting chances, but they weren't going in," Grabner told ESPN.com on Wednesday at the team's hotel. "I think I could have had at least 15 goals last year, maybe 20, with the chances I was getting.

"The last couple of years in Long Island, I was playing a different style than I was used to -- more PK and solid defensively, which is fine," Grabner said. "I tried to do my role there. But when I got to Toronto, Lou had seen me play a lot when he was in New Jersey, knew I could score goals, Mike and him wanted me to go out there and use my speed to create offense, and they gave me a bit more leash than maybe I had in Long Island the last few years. I got my confidence back.''

Truth be told, the Rangers weren't looking for scoring as the most important attribute when they signed the Austrian last summer but rather his speed and penalty-killing ability. Ever since they traded away Carl Hagelin, the Blueshirts had been desperate to add a guy with those kinds of wheels.

The fact that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault had coached Grabner in Vancouver and assistant coach Scott Arniel had worked with the winger in the AHL with Manitoba years ago, helped because they both knew what Grabner could bring. Vigneault and Arniel help recruit Grabner during the free-agent courting period last summer.

The fact that he leads the Rangers with 21 goals? That's just a bonus, and further proof of what a bargain GM Jeff Gorton got when he signed Grabner to a two-year deal at $1.65 million per season.

The fact is, Grabner left money on the table. He had a more lucrative offer from another team. But he had other priorities in mind when he was picking his next club.

"Yeah, I was looking for a mix of two things: best fit and a chance to win," Grabner said. "Everyone's goal is to win a Stanley Cup. I'm not getting any younger. We want to get into the playoffs and hopefully have a long run.''

Before the season started, it was almost a guarantee that Grabner -- because of that second year on his deal -- would be one of the Rangers forwards left exposed for the expansion draft in June. Now his play has forced management to at least ponder its options, though when you look at the seven forwards New York can protect, it's still a tough choice. There are at least eight forwards, including Grabner, whom the Blueshirts don't want to lose.

Grabner isn't losing any sleep over the possibility that he could be selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

"You can't worry about it,'' he said. "You don't know what's going to happen; you can't focus on it."

Right now, he's just trying to ride the wave. He's a great example of how confidence fuels performance.

"Yeah, you feel different out there. When things are going good and you're scoring goals, you don't think about anything when you're out there on the ice," Grabner said. "You just skate and good things happen. But as soon as things start to go down, something bad happens, you get back to the bench and you start thinking, 'I've got to make something good happen.' And it kind of spirals.

"It's an interesting game. I wish you could figure out how to keep that same feeling when you're feeling confident. But it's hard to do every game.''

Are things just evening out after last season?

"He played exactly the same way he is now, but he just didn't score; they didn't bounce in for him," said Leafs winger Leo Komarov, his other linemate last season."He got a breakaway almost every game. He was really good. He probably had like 30-40 breakaways last year. This year he's scoring, too. He's got the confidence back. He's a good player and he's obviously showing everyone that.''