On July 1, 2016 Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton signed Michael Grabner to a two-year, $3.3 million contract. And he’s been laughing about it ever since.
In 2016-17 Grabner scored 27 goals in 76 games. He had as many 5-on-5 goals as Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, and Filip Forsberg despite having an average ice time of 14:06. Laine, who saw the least amount of total 5-on-5 TOI of that talented trio, still saw 134 more minutes of ice time in that scenario than Grabner in three fewer games.
As brilliant as Grabner was last season, he’s been even better this year. Grabner already has 21 goals through the first 49 games of 2017-18. As a result he’s on pace for the second 30 goal season of his career; his first since 2011-12.
His 16.7 percent shooting percentage that seemed so unsustainable last year has jumped up to 19.3 percent at the 2018 All-Star break. He just keeps scoring. It’s important to note that Grabner’s numbers are inflated by six empty net goals, but his 5-on-5 production remains staggeringly impressive. There’s a lot more going on here than a very fast winger who is riding a two-year hot streak.
This season Grabner is tied for 16th in the league in goals scored during 5-on-5 play – so it should come as no surprise that he’s also leading the Rangers in 5-on-5 goals, just like he did last season. Grabner is also attacking more on the rush this season, especially during 5-on-5 play. There isn’t a team in the league that isn’t aware of his explosive speed and ability to get breakaway chances, but it appears that hasn’t made much of a difference.
Grabner is so good at what he does best that there’s very little you can do to stop it. He is one of a handful of players in the league who is a threat for a breakaway every time he is on the ice. And for the past two seasons he has occupied just $1.65 million in cap space. You don’t get better deals than that.
When discussing Rangers free agent signings that exemplified getting good bang for your buck it’s damn hard to beat Grabner. Last year only 16 players (excluding players with ELCs) had a lower cost-per-goal than the Austrian speedster. This season only six players are better bargains as goal scorers; and one of them is Jonathan Marchessault who is entering into a six-year, $30 million contract next season.
Before Gorton inked Grabner, the Rangers organization had a shoddy track record when it came to signing free agent wingers with offensive upside. Benoit Pouliot and his 15 goal 2013-14 campaign is perhaps the only other signing you could call a success in recent history – especially if we are measuring by goal production.
Before Pouliot came signings like Ryan Malone, Taylor Pyatt, Lee Stempniak, Alex Frolov, and Ales Kotalik. Not to mention the scoring wingers that the Rangers traded for like Emerson Etem, Ryane Clowe, and Wojtek Wolski. Remember, the focus here is on depth scoring wingers, not stars in their prime like Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik.
Including Ruslan Fedotenko in that group felt a little bit harsh, but he also failed to provide much depth offense while playing for the Rangers. He scored 19 goals in 139 regular season games and two goals in 25 playoff games for the Blueshirts. The Fedotenko signing was far from a mistake, but he failed to produce like he had with the Lightning and Pittsburgh.
Clearly, Grabner’s success in New York has been uncommon. It’s just a shame that his tenure in New York is likely coming to an end with February 26 fast approaching. And it speaks volumes that he has a good chance to finish as the Rangers leading goal scorer whether or not he plays the last quarter of the season wearing a different jersey.
If the team around him had been built better, Grabner could have been what tipped the scales to make a good team great. But that’s not what happened. Now the best case scenario for Gorton and the Rangers is getting picks and prospects by dealing the veteran while the getting is good.
We should celebrate players who manage to exceed our expectations when they become Rangers regardless of what happens with the team itself. It’s not often that a 28-year-old free agent coming off of a nine goal season completely transforms his new team’s offense – but that is exactly what Grabner did when he signed with the Rangers on July 1, 2016. He’s been a runaway success.