Where Has Michael Grabner’s Ice Time Gone?

Kevin Schultz , Islanders Point Blank:

During last night’s game against the Rangers, one player really seemed to stick out. The Islanders’ Michael Grabner, despite limited ice time, was a central factor in the game as he scored the Islanders’ only goal on a nice wrister in the first period and was called for a hooking penalty 21 seconds into overtime, which would lead to the game winning power play goal for the Rangers.

A curious thing has happened with Grabner throughout the season; as it’s gone on he’s gotten less and less playing time to the point where it seems as though he’s in the coach’s doghouse. But Grabner’s kept scoring and currently has 10 goals, a pace that would put him at 34 during a full 82-game season. He’s also been an integral part of the team’s penalty killing unit for much of the season, spending an amazing 2:22 of shorthanded time on the ice last night alone.

Not only is Grabner scoring, but he’s scoring important goals. Of his ten goals, eight are even strength. That’s more than every other Islander except John Tavares (9) and more than double any other player on the team. The Islanders have had trouble scoring 5-on-5 outside of the top line and it would make sense that Grabner would see increased playing time as a result of this. But that’s not the case.

Grabner’s playing time has steadily decreased as the season has gone on. Through the season’s first 11 games Grabner had five goals and two assists, skating more than 17 minutes in nine of those ten games. In his last 13 games he has five goals and an assist, almost the same pace, with drastically reduced time. Grabner hasn’t had more than 16 minutes on ice in any of those last 13 games and has seen the ice more than 13 minutes only once in the last five.

The lack of ice time was notable in last night’s game, as Grabner seemed to be clicking on all cylinders and scored but managed only 11:41 total and a measly 9:19 at even strength. Enforcer Eric Boulton had comparable even strength time, spending 8:30 on the ice at 5-on-5 last night. Grabner is now 14th on the team in average even strength ice time after last night’s game with 12:02 and is third on the team in goals.

Even Grabner’s penalty — only his third all season — was debatable. The Islanders complained loudly after the game ended about Grabner’s call and the fact that the whole night a total of zero penalties had been called on the Rangers.

Maybe Grabner is banged up, after all he spent the lockout playing a full slate of games in Austria. But if he is, he sure doesn’t look it and his scoring hasn’t changed a bit. It also doesn’t make sense that only Grabner’s minutes would be cut as Mark Streit, Lubomir Visnovsky, Andrew MacDonald, and Frans Nielsen, other players who played full time during the lockout, haven’t seen the same significant dip in ice time. If one of the team’s top goal scorers is scoring and not hurt, wouldn’t it be common sense to play him more than fourth line minutes?

Another reason could be that Grabner works better in short bursts, as he relies heavily on his speed to make plays. Saving energy could give him extra steps later on in games. But, again, that seems to run counter intuitive to the simple idea of putting out the best players and lines to win games. The extended minutes in the beginning of the season, which was mid-season for Grabner, also didn’t hurt his opportunities or production. There wasn’t a glaring need to scale him back.

The Islanders have had trouble with secondary scoring for a long time now, to the point where it’s a dead horse that’s still haunting them. Grabner, John Tavares and Matt Moulson all have double digit goal totals with no other Islander amassing more than five. To only give limited minutes to the team’s biggest scoring threat outside of the top line when there’s such a need for secondary scoring is bizarre. Maybe there’s a good reason for that, but it is certainly clear that an explanation is needed.