Michael Grabner’s calling cards: even-strength goals, penalty-killing prowess
The Coyotes entered free agency with a simple and singular goal: bolster their scoring on the wing.
They pursued free-agent James van Riemsdyk deep into Saturday night, but when his demands exceeded what general manager John Chayka deemed sensible for his team’s structure, the Coyotes turned to Plan B.
On Sunday, they signed wing Michael Grabner to a three-year, $10.05 million contract with an average annual value of $3.35 million.
Grabner, who will turn 31 on Oct. 5, has scored 27 goals each of the past two seasons and has 158 goals in 553 NHL games. His 51 even-strength goals over the last two seasons are tied for eighth in the NHL with Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and the New York Islanders’ Anders Lee. He spent most of the past two seasons with the New York Rangers, who traded him to the New Jersey Devils before last season’s trade deadline as the Rangers embarked on a public rebuild.
Grabner owns a robust career shooting percentage of 13.0, but 11 of his 54 goals (20 percent) over the past two seasons were into empty nets. There had been some criticism that he thrives more in a secondary role than when he is relied upon as a go-to scorer, but that didn’t scare off the Coyotes, particularly at the price.
“First off, he’s a proven even-strength scorer,” Chayka said. “Those are difficult to find.
“The game is trending toward speed and skill and he’s got it in spades, and he’s an elite penalty killer so he’s got these special attributes, these unique attributes that are typically very difficult to find in free agency, and if you ever do find them you end up paying an arm and a leg.
“I thought it was a good value play. We got someone who’s motivated, who’s in great shape and had an interest in playing for the Coyotes. We wanted to address our wing position and add some goal scoring and we felt we addressed that with Michael.”
This was Grabner’s second foray into the unrestricted free-agent waters, but it felt far different than 2016 when he was coming off a nine-goal, 18-point performance for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I didn’t have that good of a year the year before so I just went into this whole thing with an open mind,” he said. “People asked where I wanted to go, but I said I was just going to wait and pick the right spot for me. Obviously, there is a lot that goes into it with my family and my son is going to school so there’s a lot of different factors that went into this.”
Grabner played with current Coyotes Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta two seasons ago in New York. He admitted it was comforting knowing they are here in a foreign city.
Raanta believes Grabner will be a great influence on the Coyotes’ younger players. Stepan offered an analysis of his game.
“He is a veteran guy that has a lot of experience in the NHL and brings a lot of speed and goal scoring, but the biggest thing is he will help our PK so much,” Stepan said. “He is one of the best PK guys I have ever played with.”
Stepan thinks Grabner will thrive offensively with the Coyotes.
“He anticipates where the puck is going to be so well,” Stepan said. “He is always in the right areas. He will be very good in our system.”
The aspect of Grabner’s game that will jump out most to fans is his pace, a valuable asset in Tocchet’s go-north system.
“Everyone knows my game is based on speed and skating,” he said. “I would say I’m a shoot-first kind of guy. They have a lot of good playmakers on the roster. I’m just going to try to use my speed and open up some space for them.”
Aside from Van Riemsdyk, the Coyotes also had discussions with free-agent forward David Perron (and others), but Grabner said he knew early in the process that Arizona was interested.
“They just kept checking in,” he said. “Obviously, you want to play somewhere where a team wants you to come in and help them win. I’m glad I ended up there. They have a great young team and hopefully I can go in there and help them out.”
Grabner’s career-high in goals came in 2010-11 with the New York Islanders when he scored. 34. Only four Coyotes have topped 30 goals since Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk departed in 2001. Daniel Briere had 32 goals in 2001-02; Shane Doan and Mike Comrie had 30 in 2005-06; Doan had 31 in 2008-09; and Radim Vrbata had 35 in 2011-12.
“We’re not signing him to be the savior here,” Chayka said. “He’s coming in to be a part of our group. We think we’ve got a number of good, young players that can score a lot of goals this season, but to get a guy that’s got veteran experience, that’s been there before, and like I said, is in great shape, it kind of checked all the boxes for us.”
Chayka admitted that the process of improving the roster never ends, but he was ready to pause after the first official day of free agency that also included the official announcement of contract extensions for defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
“I think, for the time being, we’ll take a step back and continue to evaluate,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a ton more movement in terms of the UFA market. We’ll continue to evaluate and see how things shake out. There are a few other things we’re looking at.
“Ultimately, I think we have confidence in our group and in our young players to take on more significant roles. If this is the group we’re going with, we’re comfortable. But at the same time, if there’s a chance to improve, we’ll look at that.”