Mikhail Grabovski's first season with the Islanders was already a bit of a mess by this time last year.
He was playing left wing rather than the center spot he'd occupied well for the Leafs and Caps over his first six NHL seasons and he'd already missed a week with the first of two concussions suffered on big, legal hits -- San Jose's hulking John Scott buried Grabovski in the fourth game of 2014-15.
Grabovski made some good contributions a season ago, finishing with nine goals and 10 assists in 51 games. But he played center more times (three) in his brief postseason appearance than he did in the regular season (two), and it wasn't the 31-year-old's preferred option.
He's been a center since the start of training camp last month and his play has reflected that comfort. His possession numbers are down, along with everyone else's on the Islanders despite their 5-2-1 record, but Grabovski is playing more to his creative style, capped by his overtime winner to beat the Blues, 3-2, on Saturday night in St. Louis.
"I'm sure he'd say he's happier there. He just has more space to operate and he doesn't have to be along the wall as much," Jack Capuano said. "He's been effective for us and it was good to see the hard work get rewarded."
Grabovski certainly wouldn't admit it, but the two concussions he suffered last season, on hits from Scott and the Predators' Eric Nystrom (the second one put Grabovski out for two months) came on plays where Grabovski was near the side boards, trying to stick-handle into space with his head down.
That might have to do with his position. Brock Nelson was more effective at center last year in training camp, so Grabovski shifted. Nelson, though, wore down in the second half of the season with the responsibilities of being a center. So Grabovski has primarily been centering Nikolay Kulemin and Nelson, to positive effect.
"You just try to play simple and the coaches have more trust in you," Grabovski said after his OT winner on Saturday. He centered Nelson and Steve Bernier in St. Louis, but made his big play during three-on-three OT with Frans Nielsen.
Grabovski drove the middle on the winning play, taking two Blues with him to the net. He doesn't shy away from those sorts of moves, even if the memories of his ugly hits last season are still fresh. He took a big hit from the Blues' Steve Ott on Saturday but bounced right up.
"I feel good now," he said. "I feel like we've been playing good. It's nice to get a goal and help the team win."