The Toronto Maple Leafs just got a little bit faster today, acquiring Michael Grabner from the New York Islanders for Taylor Beck, Carter Verhaeghe, Matt Finn, Christopher Gibson, and Tom Nilsson.
The package being sent out seems straight out of an EA Sports game; a full dump of contracts to get as far away from the 50-man limit as possible. None of the above players were likely to make the Leafs this year, with Beck being the closest yet still a long shot, but all of them counted towards signed contracts.
The biggest name of the bunch was Matt Finn, who we had as our twentieth-ranked prospect in our rankings this year, after previously finishing second in 2014. To quickly summarize, Finn had a season that involved multiple injuries and significant struggle to keep up with the professional game. He shouldn’t be entirely written off at this point, as a healthy year could push him back in the right direction, but he’s become a longer term project in an organization that is filled with them.
Christopher Gibson is an interesting person to be in this package. If you go back three months, Leafs Assistant GM Kyle Dubas was declaring the starting job for the Toronto Marlies one that Gibson had to lose, and it’s not hard to see why. After a shaky start, the 22-year-old native of Karkkila, Finland put up a 0.921 save percentage through 45 games, becoming the team’s top goaltender come playoff time. With that said, both Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau have been breathing down his neck, and might possibly be better goaltenders, which ultimately made Gibson a bit expendable.
Tom Nilsson is a defensive defenceman who the Leafs had some hopes for, but was far back in the depth chart. In 44 games with the Marlies last year, he put up six points and played on the penalty kill. His most frequent linemates were fellow countrymen Viktor Loov and Petter Granberg.
Carter Verhaeghe was probably the furthest away of the bunch, having finished his final year in the OHL this year, scoring 82 points in 68 games with the Niagara IceDogs. This put him in 13th place in league points, 24th on a per-game basis. Prospect Cohort Success (PCS) numbers projected him at having 15.91% chance of playing 200 career NHL games based on his performance last year.
Lastly, you have Taylor Beck. The Leafs acquired him in June for Jamie Devane, and traded him before he could play his first game. You have to feel a little bad for the St. Catherines native, who was very excited to wear the blue and white and won’t get the opportunity, but this is how the business works.
The Leafs pick up Michael Grabner, who might just be the fastest hockey player on the planet. Nobody is quite sure how the 6’0, 185 lb gentleman from Villach, Austria does it, but his acceleration and top speed is some of the best that the league has seen. Sadly, his elite speed doesn’t come with elite talent to match, but he’s still a quality hockey player.
Grabner’s career started with the Vancouver Canucks, who drafted him 14th overall in 2006. He put up solid offensive numbers with the Manitoba Moose in his first few years of professional hockey, and once he made the jump to the NHL, picked up five goals and six assists in his first 20 games. The Canucks didn’t feel they required the scoring depth, however, and traded him to the Florida Panthers in a large deal to acquire Keith Ballard (whooops).
Despite the move, Grabner never ended up playing with the Panthers, who placed him on waivers for the New York Islanders to claim. Florida’s loss ended up being New York’s Gain, as the 23-year-old scored 34 goals in his first full season to earn himself a 5-year, $15 million contract. Now 27, Grabner hasn’t been able to repeat the magic since, having scored no more than 32 points in any of his remaining, often injury shortened seasons. Grabner started last year out with sports hernia surgery, and finished it with a groin injury, limiting him to 34 regular season games and 13 points.
Grabner’s rate numbers are better than his row ones, though. Last year, he finished 6th among Islanders forwards with 350+ minutes played at even strength, averaging 1.95 points per sixty minutes – higher than any member of the Leafs. At 1.72 points/sixty over the last four seasons, Grabner has been a consistent contributor to his team, putting up offensive numbers similar to Mikhail Grabovski.
As far as driving play, Grabner was a bit below the possession curve of his teammates last year, but typically comes out pretty even to the grain. These numbers are impressive given the circumstances; the Islanders use him more than others in the defensive zone, thanks to his ability to rush the puck out. This should lead to more opportunities against him and fewer chances to score, but he does a good job cancelling out the adversity.
Michael Grabner isn’t going to be a superstar for the Leafs by any means, but he becomes yet another option for the team up front. He’s capable of playing in defensive situations, can contribute to the penalty kill, and when he’s on his game, is one of the most entertaining players in hockey. With one year left on his contract, the Leafs could easily move him at the deadline, or perhaps retain him at a probable paycut. It also pushes the Leafs closer and closer to the Salary Cap; a good thing, as it gives them actual benefit to placing Nathan Horton on Long Term Injured Reserve.
It does sting, to an extent, to lose so many prospects, but the team has done an incredible job at loading up the cupboards over the past few months. Shipping out this many bodies gives them a lot more flexibility when it comes to signing players to NHL deals over the next few weeks (for example, any of the PTOs), and in the long term, probably maximizes both the amount of assets and the quality of assets that the Leafs will pick up in the long term.
Overall, its a shrewd move by the staff that likely makes the team better both now and eventually.