Grabner On Top
CANUCKS GET THEIR MAN
By: Kevin Kinghorn
The odds of a skinny kid from a village in Austria even getting up to the stage on draft day are as promising as making career out of scratch-and-wins.
Then again, so was the notion of Roberto Luongo suiting up in Vancouver.
So it's somewhat fitting that the Canucks bucked expectations with their first pick and reached down the draft ladder to pluck Austrian winger Michael Grabner with the 14th overall selection.
Generously ranked in the high 20's on most lists, Grabner was deemed the 29th-best skater by The Hockey News.
"We really like Grabner a lot," said general manager Dave Nonis. "We like him as a player, and like him as a person. He's a very committed young man."
"We had offers to move down, but we didn't know how many people had him rated high. Maybe we could have gotten him further down the list, but the benefit in a draft that maybe isn't as sharp as other ones for those later picks, didn't make it wise to do it."
The 6'0", 170-pound winger from Villach, Austria is a pure scorer. Central Scouting describes "Grabby" as a highly skilled player who's one of the fastest skaters in the draft.
"You need to have foot speed to play this game now," explained Nonis. "You can get by if you're not a great skater if you have superior intelligence and positioning, but ultimately, the biggest skill you need to have is skating ability."
After notching 13 goals and 24 points in his rookie year after making the jump from an Austrian men's league to the WHL's Spokane Chiefs at 17 years old, Grabner exploded in the second half last year with close to a goal-a-game pace.
"He didn't start playing like this until Christmas," said Nonis. "If he would have gone through the year like he did in October and November, he wouldn't have been this high up on our list. But he really took off and we were the
beneficiaries of being out west and being around him a little more often."
Part of Grabner's slow start can be attributed to his team in Spokane. The Chiefs finished with the fewest wins in the entire WHL and had just one player in the top 50 in scoring.
Not that the losses hampered Grabner's spirit. He's a driven kid with a buoyant personality who flew to an entire new continent at 17 years old to give himself a better chance at an NHL career. A losing season in junior wasn't going to keep him down.
"It's a really good moment," said Grabner, moments after being selected by Vancouver. "It's what I've been working for my whole life."
"I was a little surprised. I was hoping to go in the first round but I didn't know where I was going, so I'm really happy right now."
As much as his torrid second-half scoring pace and his blinding speed, Grabner's attraction is his willingness to play the North American game.
"I like the style here," he said. "It's way quicker and stuff than in Austria because of the small ice."
He'll never tear up the Western League with his fists unless they're wrapped firmly around a stick, but he's willing to dish out a hit to make a play.
Grabner knew he wasn't going to develop that kind of edge playing in Austria, even if it was as a 16 year-old in a men's league, which prompted the move to the WHL.
"I always wanted to make it to the NHL and it's hard to make it there from Austria. I knew my chances were better if I went to North America."
Grabner hasn't exactly endeared himself to Vancouver fans suiting up for the WHL-rival Chiefs, but that hasn't soured his opinion any.
"I think they are great fans," he said. "They stick with their team in good times and bad times. I really enjoyed playing in Vancouver."
Judging by the cheers when his name was announced, Canuck supports don't harbour any grudges either.
"I was looking forward to getting picked by [Vancouver] and it was awesome with all the screams and stuff. It was a really great moment."
Making the leap from the Pacific Colliseum to General Motors Place will be plenty tough enough, but considering the long odds Grabner's already beat just to get to Spokane, it's not inconceivable.
Villach is far from the Austria's answer to Ornskoldsvik, the famed Swedish hockey factory that's produced Markus Naslund, the Sedin Twins and Peter Forsberg.
In fact, nobody in Grabner's family ever played hockey at all, let alone competitively.
His dad works for a microchip factory and his mom stayed at home to raise Grabner and his 13 year-old sister.
"My mom introduced me to hockey when I was five years old because I was living right next to an arena and wanted to do some sports," he said.
"She took me over for a practice and that's how I got into it."
A more fitting pastime for a young Autrian boy would have been skiing - a sport Grabner hasn't tried in years despite growing up in a mountain village encircled in ski resorts.
"I skied when I was a kid, but I haven't skied forever now. It's dangerous for hockey."
It speaks volumes that an Austrian would forgo the slopes on the chance a freak accident could derail his hockey career.
"I want to be like Ovechkin," he said. "I like the way he plays - fast and with such passion."
An Austrian Ovechkin would top all expectations, though Canucks are more likely crossing their fingers in hopes of getting the next Thomas Vanek - the player Grabner pegs as the greatest Austrian NHLer ever.
That Vanek is just 22 and completed his first ever NHL season says a lot about Austrian hockey.
Mind you, Vanek did score 25 goals for the upstart Buffalo Sabres and got within a spitting range of the Stanley Cup finals.
The Canucks are hoping Grabner's combination of skill and determination will relegate Vanek's achievements to page three status in the Austrian sports sections.
With the way things have gone so far, if the NHL doesn't work out, Grabner could probably do well with scratch-and-wins after all.