Michael Grabner – What's the Cost of a Unicorn?

Kristaps Porzingis, the 7’ 3” Latvian who has quickly ascended into the face of the New York Knicks isn’t the city’s only Unicorn. He’s not even the only one who calls Madison Square Garden home. In the truest sense of the Unicorn moniker, Grabner’s production against his contract and expectations makes him truly unique in the league. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, for general manager Jeff Gorton, that’s going to make evaluating the 30-year-old’s next contract awfully difficult.

Grabner, who Pat Leonard said came off the “discount rack” when the Rangers signed him to a two-year, $3.3 million deal, has delivered far beyond his value. He initially wrote, “Grabner essentially is the Rangers’ latest attempt at replacing the speed and penalty killing of Carl Hagelin.” In some sense, that’s been proven true. But, though unforeseen, Grabner’s 27-goal regular season last year made him more of an impact player than Hagelin ever was and, as he’s blossomed into a key penalty-killer and elite depth scorer, there really are no comparables for either party to leverage.

Last season, Grabner’s scoring overshadowed the fact that he was, in fact, brought in to fill the Hagelin role and kill penalties – a role he filled well. Though the unit last year finished at a disappointing 79.8%19th in the league—Grabner lead all Rangers forwards in shorthanded TOI (128:24) and SH TOI/GP (1:41). He also generated 19 shots, to lead the team.

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This year, after early struggles, New York’s penalty kill has been quite good. Over the last 12 games, the Rangers have killed 44 of 52 opportunities (84.6%) punctuated by the artful kill of the 5-minute major to Brendan Smith against Ottawa. Grabner, amongst forwards, trails only Kevin Hayes in SH TOI/GP at just over 2:00 per game. And while he doesn’t have a short-handed goal, he’s again showcased how dangerous his speed makes him, leading the team’s forwards in SH shots, with seven. The Rangers penalty killing unit, as a whole, currently ranks 15th (80.5%).

Penalty killers, even the best of them, can be justified with a contract similar to the one Grabner currently has. Paul Byron, who sees almost the same SH TOI/GP as Grabner, makes slightly less but was signed without the same scoring upside. Even though he scored 22 goals last season, Byron’s contract is a good example of what a fleet-footed penalty killer can get as a free agent.

Grabner, however, is more than just a penalty killer in his current form. In fact, since the start of last season, Grabner’s scoring ranks among the elite. In the almost unfathomable context of bottom-six time on ice, he ranks sixth in goals per 60 minutes (1.57). Even more startlingly, he does it without any powerplay time. His 36 goals ranks just outside the top 30 (tied with Jamie Benn), but he’s fifth in even-strength goals with 36. That’s more than Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, the Patty’s Kane and Laine, and many of the forwards who come to mind before Grabner when we think of elite NHL scorers.

Of the top-75 players with the most goals since the start of last year, Grabner is the only player with none on the powerplay. Byron, who has 27 total goals, is the only other player in the top-100. Additionally, Grabner, who doesn’t see any ice on the power play and averages just 14:05 per night, is the only player with more than 25 goals in that time who averages less than 15:00 per night.

This is unicorn-level production. A top-five scorer who plays bottom-six minutes without a comparable in the league. Boy does that make guessing at his next contract a lot of fun!

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Without getting into too much minutiae of comparing Grabner to contemporaries (because, again, he doesn’t have any), let’s just say that he’s somewhere between Vladamir Tarasenko and Daniel Winnik. He’s not quite the player he was two seasons ago in Toronto or in 2011 when he signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Islanders. On top of that, the fact that he’s the perfect fit for the Rangers system could drive his cost up as easily as it could drive it down, considering that Alain Vigneault’s system is the ideal place for Grabner, making him a bit of a niche player.

All told, we can be certain that Grabner’s camp is going to leverage the scoring while Gorton’s will leverage the penalty killing. Maybe something along the lines of three years at $3 million per year could be a fair compromise. Whether or not the two parties can bridge the gap and fit under the salary cap is difficult to say, but taking the over would be smart money. Consequently, we shouldn’t be shocked if Grabner ends up a deadline-day cap casualty for a playoff bubble Rangers squad.



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