While the Checkers’ power play was always going to have a tough time maintaining its other-worldly pace from the start of the season, the timing of its coming back to earth may not be a coincidence.
In eight total games without the services of defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, the Checkers are converting at a rate of 16.1 percent. Make no mistake, that’s a respectable percentage that hovers right around the league average. However, when Gragnani is in their lineup, as he was for 11 of the first 12 games before suffering a lower-body injury on Nov. 8, they’ve scored at a staggering 29.6 percent of their chances.
Even though Justin Faulk, Bobby Sanguinetti and Chris Terry still give the team three great options to run the point, getting the 2011 Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s best defenseman back in their lineup could be the difference between very good and elite.
“He’s a big plus,” said coach Jeff Daniels of Gragnani, who the Carolina Hurricanes signed to a two-way contract this past offseason. “We were on a pretty high pace there early in the year, and he was a big part of that. It’s one of his assets, and it will be good to have him back and healthy.”
There’s a good chance that could happen for the team’s next game. Gragnani is practicing fully with the team this week and is aiming to return for Saturday’s home game against Rockford.
“It was kind of weird and kind of a freak accident,” said Gragnani, who strained a muscle while taking a normal stride down the ice during a game against Peoria. “I’m happy with my rehab, but obviously I might need one or two games to get my timing back because that goes away pretty quickly.”
“It’s not so much the injury, it’s just getting that conditioning back to where he’s able to win those battles like he’ll have to do in games,” said Daniels. “We have four (practice) days where we’ll give him a real good push, and then we’ll reassess him on Saturday.”
How good was Gragnani on the power play prior to his injury? Even though he’s missed those eight games – seven due to the injury and one due to an illness – he still leads the team and is tied for fifth in the AHL with seven power-play assists. That includes the comeback win in Grand Rapids on Oct. 26 in which he recorded a team-record four assists on the power play, helping the team tie another record with four power-play goals in a single game.
“He thinks the game at a high level and sees a lot of different options on the ice,” said Daniels of Gragnani, who led Buffalo with seven points in seven games during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. “He’s an incredible passer, whether it’s on the power play or breaking it out of our zone. It’s always hard and it’s always on the tape.”
Though Gragnani, a 25-year-old who has enjoyed an extremely productive AHL career so far (215 points in 294 games played) had a five-assist game with Portland during his award-winning 2011 season, that game marked his first game with four power-play assists. It was also the first time any AHL player has accomplished that feat since Oklahoma City’s Brad Moran did it on Jan. 13, 2011, coincidentally just two days before Gragnani’s five-assist outing with Portland.
“It’s a credit to the guys,” said Gragnani. “If Boychuk doesn’t score this goal or Faulk doesn’t score that goal, I can’t get the assists. It’s a team game, and I was lucky they were able to finish.”
Despite being a newcomer to the team – he spent all of last season in the NHL with Buffalo and Vancouver before becoming a free agent – Gragnani cited his ability to settle in quickly as a reason for his early success.
“A lot of guys helped me with that,” he said. “There are a couple of other guys who came in from other organizations, Dalpe and Boychuk were really good about hanging out with me, and I could name the whole team. We’re a pretty tight-knit group here.”
As for what was working on the power play?
“I think me and Faulk had good chemistry from day one and worked really well together. He’s more of a shooter than me, and Bowman was another guy we worked well with. I think we were really dangerous every time we were out there and were getting lots of good scoring chances.”
If all goes well, the Checkers will be able to benefit from that again very soon.