If you looked at Michael Grabner’s numbers without any context, you would think he was outdoing his torrid scoring campaign from 2016-2017; so far his 8 goals in 18 games puts him on pace for 36 this season. Incredible!
Of course, half of those goals have been empty netters. Neither tactical genius nor analytical expertise should be necessary to understand why that makes Grabner’s scoring streak somewhat hollow.
That is not to say, however, that the empty net goals are worthless. For one, they indicate trust from the coaching staff to play important defensive minutes. Phil Kessel, who is a hell of a hockey player, has just six empty net goals in his entire career. He of all players could surely smack the puck into an empty net from anywhere on the ice. But he’s not a coach’s first option to protect the lead with 50 seconds left in the game. Grabner is a player who is used in those shifts, and so he has a lot of opportunities to score empty net goals. More to the point, empty net goals aren’t worthless. If a puck is dumped into a corner with 50 seconds left, then the other team has 50 seconds to tie the game. If a puck is put into an empty net, then the game is over. Scoring an empty netter is the best way to protect a lead.
It does not appear that scoring empty net goals is purely a byproduct of being on the ice in extra attacker situations, though. I looked at Selke Trophy voting over the last few decades and picked out some of the wingers who are perceived as being elite defensive forwards. Admittedly, this is not quite a scientific process worthy of recognition from MIT. However, it should be a pragmatic way of comparing Grabner to some great defensive players who surely had lots of ice-time in empty net situations.
Grabner absolutely blows most of these guys out of the water. It’s one thing for him to produce more than players like Jay Pandolfo and P.J. Axelsson, who had little offensive ability. But two-way studs like Jari Kurri and Jiri Lehtinen? That’s incredibly impressive.
In fact, of the 41 players in NHL history to score at least 17 empty net goals, Grabner is fourth in goals per game. Only Pavel Bure, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux ranked higher.
Surely, there is some noise in empty net goal data. Empty net goals are a rare event at the player level, and that creates room for a lot of variance. They also depend heavily on circumstance. Cal Clutterbuck has as many career empty net goals as Petr Forsberg in fewer games played, and no reasonable person would chalk that up to ability. The video confirms that many of Grabner’s goals were just the puck happening to find him in the right place at the right time. Still, Grabner’s empty net goal prowess seems like more than solely luck.
The obvious, and likely correct, explanation is his ability to anticipate plays and then speed up the ice. The following clips show these parts of his game. He is very good at pressuring the points and has a sense for where the puck is going to end up. He uses his speed to get to get into position quickly, and then once he’s taken his first few strides nobody is going to catch him.
Throughout the season, Grabner generates an absurd number of breakaways and odd-man rushes, but beating goaltenders isn’t his strong suit. With the other team in full attack mode, it becomes even easier for Grabner to create those transition chances. With no goaltender in the crease, his shooting problem goes away. It’s the perfect storm, and surely explains at least some part of his crazy empty net scoring numbers.
Grabner’s 17 career empty net goals ties him for 30th all-time in the NHL, and it will be interesting to see how high up the ladder he can climb. Wayne Gretzky’s 56, unsurprisingly, is the record holder. More immediate and realistically achievable is the single-season record. Pave Bure scored nine empty netters during the 1999-2000 season. Grabner is just five away from tying that mark, with 64 games remaining in the season. There is no empty net to shoot at if the Rangers aren’t winning, so that’s the first step. If they can keep winning consistently going forward, then Grabner may very well challenge Bure and create some history that doesn’t mean a lot, but doesn’t mean nothing, either.