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NHL Free Agency 2018: A case for signing Michael Grabner, an elite third-line winger

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Just when the Golden Knights are in need of some bottom-six depth, one of the elite bottom-six wingers is available in free agency.

Vegas Golden Knights v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights enter their second offseason with the weight of expectations from a Stanley Cup Final runner-up season on their shoulders.

Those expectations being only the second-heaviest weight the Golden Knights are carrying, falling just short of their projected $30 million in cap space (PEOPLE BE GETTIN’ PAID!).

Alright, enough silliness, let’s get down to the business of building a roster for the 2018-19 campaign. Today, the focus is on improving the bottom six and depth scoring of the Golden Knights via free agency.

With that in mind we place our attention on Michael Grabner, the 30-year-old winger who played for the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils last season and is set to become a free agent July 1. For Grabner, that’s proving to be a bit of perfect timing.

For one, the salary cap is expected to rise anywhere from three to seven million dollars, which could see salaries inflate in free agency just in time for him to earn a big raise on the $1.65 million average annual value from the contract he signed before the 2016-17 season. That’s an especially reasonable expectation considering he has put together two straight 27-goal seasons since.

Also working in his favor is the lack of high-end wingers available in this free agent pool. With Evander Kane inking an extension to stay in San Jose, the big fish appear to be Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk and Vegas’ David Perron and James Neal, with Grabner coming in just behind them.

For teams who are unable to sign those players, or unwilling to spend the $5 million or more they will surely be demanding, Grabner becomes the obvious backup plan.

It could also end up being perfect timing for the Golden Knights as one of the league’s more underrated, versatile bottom-six forwards is becoming available at a time where they need a real boost in the bottom six.

Strengths

Let’s start with the obvious here. Michael Grabner is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL. His speedy style, which is his key asset wherever he plays in the lineup, is exactly in line with what Gerard Gallant likes to employ in Vegas. Making the bottom six faster and more potent at even strength can only help the team going forward.

More potent at even strength? Why, yes. The guy scores goals. Grabner scored 27 goals in each of the last two seasons, a number that places him 39th in the NHL over that stretch. Of those 54 goals, 51 were at even strength. That’s good for 10th in the NHL. Now, yes, it is fair to point out that some of them were scored on an empty net; after all, he leads the league with 11 empty-net goals over the last two seasons. But that doesn’t negate the even strength goals, which is important since he wouldn’t see much time on the power play for the Golden Knights.

Vegas’ penalty kill was tied for 10th overall last season but could take a step forward with some new pieces. Grabner plays on the penalty kill. More than that, he scores on the penalty kill. His two short-handed goals last season placed him tied for 15th in the NHL in that department. Vegas already likes to use William Karlsson on the penalty kill to assist in a counter-attack; putting Grabner on his wing can only help with that.

In a little bit I’m going to mention Grabner’s possession metrics, which are not great. However, Grabner is solid defensively and is often leaned on by his teams to play a heavy workload of the defensive zone time. His Corsi For percentage could have been affected by that heavy load.

That’s true especially in his time in New York, where he started shifts in the defensive zone 56.8 percent of the time in 16-17 and 55.9 percent of the time in 59 games for New York last season. That makes it a bit more impressive that he was on the ice for 38 goals for and just 33 against last season and 43 goals for to just 30 against in 2016-17. He has started 56 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone over his career.

Weaknesses

Grabner doesn’t play a particularly physical game. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue, but it could make it a little more difficult for him to fit into the heavy forechecking style of the Golden Knights. The hope is his speed will counter some (if not most) of those issues, but it’s still worth mentioning.

His possession numbers are not great, as mentioned. His 44.8 Corsi For percentage last season was not great, and his 45.0 CF% while on the Rangers was worse. However, he was a 49.4 CF% player as a member of the New York Islanders earlier in his career, so it could possibly be a case of his linemates dragging his possession numbers down. His 46.3 CF% this past year in New Jersey suggests that might not be the case, but the 21-game sample is too small to draw conclusions from.

Grabner also doesn’t get a lot of points, primarily because he does not rack up a ton of assists. He had a career-high 18 assists in the 2010-11 season but hasn’t topped 14 since. He is not a pass-first guy, which can be an issue for some.

Personally, I don’t mind that he doesn’t appear to be much of a playmaker because of all the things he does well. If we’re nitpicking here, we could say that had he managed more than nine assists last season and 13 the year before, he would cost a whole lot more to sign as a free agent now, but I know some look at his 40 points in 2016-17 and 36 points last season and scoff.

Fit with the Golden Knights

Grabner’s speed, goal scoring ability, defensive solidity (I don’t think that’s a real term) and ability to play on the penalty kill, when combined with what should be a relatively small cap hit, is perfect for the Golden Knights. He checks all the boxes of what the Golden Knights need out of a bottom-six winger.

So, how does he fit into the lineup? Seamlessly, as a matter of fact.

He should, if everything goes to plan, replace the goals lost by letting Neal walk in free agency. That’s important because if he’s able to do that, it takes some pressure off Alex Tuch. Tuch, who in all probability will see himself slot into Neal’s spot in the lineup, would normally be expected to replace the goals scored by his predecessor on the second line. If Grabner does it for him from the third line, it means anything Tuch can offer the team above the 15 goals he scored in 2017-18 is a bonus for Vegas.

Taking some of the load off the shoulders of a 22-year-old winger is no small thing; doing it from the third line, which allows Tuch to get second-line minutes with players higher in the lineup, can only help the development of one of the future pillars of the organization.

Coming off a two-year, $3.3 million contract, Grabner definitely will get a pay raise. However, as one of the league’s most underrated talents, the number he’ll receive likely won’t break the bank.

If I was made to guess, I would think that that number could fall somewhere south of $4 million on a two- or three-year deal. Maybe something like three years, $7.5 million to $9.75 million.

With the cap set to rise, those numbers are nothing. It’s fair market value for what could be called an elite third-line player.