Ball in Grabner's court

 

One of Michael Grabner's challenges today will be to sidestep the tempting soccer ball that sits in the dressing-room entrance. The other will be to step up and prove he can skate and score in traffic and become much more than just a roster option for the Vancouver Canucks.

 
 
 
 
 

One of Michael Grabner's challenges today will be to sidestep the tempting soccer ball that sits in the dressing-room entrance. The other will be to step up and prove he can skate and score in traffic and become much more than just a roster option for the Vancouver Canucks.

With winger Mikael Samuelsson sidelined two to three weeks after suffering a third-period shoulder injury Tuesday, the onus has fallen on the recalled Grabner to put a freak soccer-ritual accident behind him and deliver on the promise he showed in October. That's when the 2006 first-round draft choice had five points in nine games on a line with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond and appeared to have finally arrived.

Grabner then broke his ankle Nov. 1 in a pre-game soccer scrum at GM Place.

"It was a fluke accident and I don't think it's going to happen again," the 22-year-old Grabner said Wednesday. "I just jumped up and my heel got caught on the wall and I landed on my toes and rolled over. It was bad luck, bad timing."

The timing couldn't be worse for the Canucks in hopes of closing the conference gap on front-running San Jose and Chicago. Samuelsson wasn't just NHL player of the week with 10 points in four games, his 30 goals and 53 points are career highs and he's become a voice of reason in the room.

Grabner has become a curiosity, a bit of an enigma who sounds like he now gets what it means to be an everyday pro.

The Austrian has played 180 regular-season and 38 playoff games with the Manitoba Moose, but just nine games in the NHL. His 15 goals and 26 points in 38 AHL games this season aren't spectacular, but he's learning to be just as good without the puck as he can potentially be with it.

"When you're younger, you come to the rink and joke around and then go out there and try to do your job," said Grabner, who'll line up with Pavol Demitra and Kesler tonight against the Sharks.

"But it takes longer to get mentally prepared and ready to go. You watch other guys and I've matured enough to step in.

"I showed management [in October] that I can play at this level, and when I went back down to Winnipeg to work on my game, I knew I could play up here. But it's up to me to show them that I can take the next step."

The transition shouldn't be tough for Grabner if he doesn't dwell on how the elite from his draft year seems years ahead in development.

The top five picks from the 2006 class -- Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel -- have combined for 558 points in 1,250 games. The development curve has been much steeper for Grabner.

"He's been playing better lately [in Manitoba] and finding his touch again, but you see the type of goal being scored," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said of the NHL game.

"It's about crashing the net and going to the net and wanting to go in the tough areas. That's one thing he has to work on to permit him to take the next step."

Kesler can do enough offensively and there's always the temptation to look for a Demitra feed to finish scoring chances. But Grabner does offer an option because all three players on the line are swift and can cause matchup problems.

"With Grabner, there are times to get the puck to him and times when his speed is going to pull the defence to him and make them back up because he draws so much attention," said Kesler. "It gives Demo and me more time to work with the puck. And when Grabner uses his speed and shot, he's a very dangerous player."

Even though Grabner said he'll use his own judgment when it comes to future pre-game soccer rituals, winger Alex Burrows offered some sage advice. He suggested the soccer fanatic should get his fix by watching the Champions League games on television, not emulating them in the hallway.

"We've already bugged him about it," said Burrows. "He can't play. Obviously, he's probably going to be the only euro not playing with us. He's going to be riding the bike. He should just have a coffee and get ready for the game."

 
 
 
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