The rallying cries of those who have tried to save the role of enforcer from extinction have been persistent and loud for years. The ideas in the defense of the role have been focused on a few major points. Enforcers may not produce goals and assists, but they do other things that result in offense. They create space for the scorers on the team, as the mere presence of one dulls the opposition's desire to be physical. They're essential to forechecking, as finishing checks can tire out defensemen or force them to make turnovers out of fear of the oncoming hit. The idea, in general, was that these were role players who did things that did not show up in statistics. It's not their jobs to make an impact in that way. The justification for their continued existence boiled down to rhetoric about being "hard to play against" and intimidating the opposition.
The Rangers, perhaps learning from the Penguins' Stanley Cup victory last June, divorced themselves from this thinking for the 2016-2017 season. Not a single player on the active roster has a fight this season. The bottom-six is full of players whom some would describe as "soft." The results so far speak for themselves. The Rangers have a winning record and lead the league in goals through balanced scoring; every single regular forward on the team is on pace for 41-plus points. None of the feared side effects have manifested, either. There is no obvious sign of teams taking liberties on the Rangers' top players despite no tough guy to "police the game."
Instead, much like the Penguins last season, the Rangers have redefined what a bottom-six should look like. Hard hits aren't what is giving the opposition nightmares and forcing bad plays with the puck. Instead, it's a balanced lineup that is impossible to match lines against, and a speedy team that forces turnovers in the neutral zone and creates numerous transition chances every game.
No player has personified this aspect of the Rangers better than Michael Grabner. His 10 goals through 16 games say plenty, but it's the intricacies of his game that reveal why he'll be an important player for the Rangers even when his scoring streak inevitably dies off to at least some degree.
Grabner perhaps does not have a particularly high offensive IQ. However, he does have a high defensive IQ as well as an ability to accelerate that is almost unmatched in the NHL. In many ways, those aspects can make up for a lack of offensive instincts. As shown in this video.
There's not a whole lot of complexity to Grabner's game. There's no bag of tricks. He is very good at baiting the opposition into thinking passing lanes are open, and then timing his jump just right to get his stick in the middle to intercept the pass. Then, he uses his quick accelerating ability to start the transition. That's it. And yet, he does both at such proficient levels that he has been one of the most threatening players in the NHL. Grabner lacks almost every trait one would expect of an offensive contributor to possess, and yet he is able to overcome much of it simply by generating so many breakaways and odd-man rushes off the transition. Those abilities are magnified on the Rangers, who have the players with passing ability to spring him on the transition as well as skating ability to join him on the rush. The Rangers have the players and system to complement Grabner's game, and vice versa. It's a perfect fit.
Grabner's scoring run was a fun quirk at the start of the season. Now, it's impossible to ignore. Approximately 20-percent of the way into the season, Grabner leads the entire NHL in five-on-five goals, with nine. He is tied for second in total goals despite receiving virtually no power play time. Grabner currently owns a 27.8% shooting percentage, which will not sustain; even in his 30-goal season he shot "just" 14.9%. But it would be naive to look at the video and not see that there is some legitimate merit to his numbers. It won't be at this excessive rate, but if Grabner continues to help generate transition chances, then opposing teams will continue to pay the price to some degree. How ironic it is, then, that Grabner has taken on the role of "intimidator," as Head Coach Alain Vigneault put it.
"He's a player that can intimidate the opposition with his speed," Vigneault told the media.
Other teams have surely taken note, and it's going to affect how they play. Opposing players will be nervous in attempting to spring forwards in the neutral zone or making a pass through the high slot, knowing that Grabner could sneak in and intercept. Defensemen might stay much higher in the offensive zone, fearing that Grabner will catch them in transition. Teams are going to have to adjust one way or another, whether that means making more hard dump-ins or matching their quickest skaters against Grabner. They'll spend film room time specifically planning against him. That means less time and priority directed towards Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and so on. How's that for creating space for skilled players?
Grabner isn't the Loch Ness Monster, but he certainly is creating headaches for the other team. He's a handful to deal with and hard to play against in ways that the stereotypical physical fourth liner could never match.