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Paying Dividends

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
The best compliment that can be paid to a defensive defenseman in the National Hockey League is that his coach can simply pencil his name in the starting lineup and “forget” about the player on a night-in and night-out basis.

The coach expects the defenseman to play a sound positional game around the net, deliver a few hits when the opportunity presents itself, box out attackers from the doorstep, block a few shots and take care of the puck. The player rarely fails to deliver.

Nicklas Grossmann, the 27-year-old defenseman whom the Philadelphia Flyers acquired from the Dallas Stars on Feb. 16, epitomizes the type of minutes-munching physical blueliner the team had been searching for to take on the defensive portion of the duties that Chris Pronger performed prior to the team captain’s career-threatening injuries. 

While Grossmann is a strictly defensive-minded player who cannot replace Pronger’s offensive prowess, the hulking (6-foot-4, 230 pound) Swede has been a boon to the club on its own side of the red line.

“Nick has been tremendous for us,” said head coach Peter Laviolette. “He’s got size and strength, but he’s also a good skater for someone that big. He battles hard around the net and the corners, and he usually wins those battles, too. He stepped right in and adjusted quickly. He can play against other clubs’ skill players and he’s done a good job.”

While all hockey players crave the opportunity to be in the thick of the action during the stretch drive and postseason, it has a little extra meaning to Grossmann this season. One season ago, amidst a rock-solid campaign for Dallas, the big defenseman was just coming off a hip-injury when he suffered a sprained MCL in a March 19 game against the Flyers.
As it turned out, the injury would keep him out of the rest of the regular season despite intensive rehabilitation efforts. The Stars ended up missing the Western Conference playoffs (with a record-tying 95 points) as a result of a loss in Minnesota on the final day of the regular season.

Grossmann then flew to Europe to join Team Sweden at the IIHF World Championships. Unfortunately, a collision with teammate Magnus Paajarvi in a preliminary round victory over Austria caused Grossmann to reinjure the knee and miss the remainder of the tournament.

“That was pretty frustrating for sure,” Grossmann admits. “You always want to be playing and feel like you’re helping the team, especially this time of year. Time ran out on me last year while I was trying to get back. So it definitely feels good to be here and playing in the games.”

One season ago, Grossmann formed an effective duo on Dallas’ top pairing with Stephane Robidas (the Stars’ closest equivalent to the Flyers’ Kimmo Timonen).  With the arrival of veteran Sheldon Souray in Dallas this season and a groin pull suffered late in the preseason, Grossmann was moved off the top pairing with Robidas to play with a variety of partners, including Trevor Daley and rookie Philip Larsen.  Although Grossmann played his usual steady game, he did not log as many minutes against other teams’ top lines prior to the trade to Philadelphia.

Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Grossmann played a few games with Andrej Meszaros (who was subsequently lost to a back injury) but has primarily played left defense on a pairing with Braydon Coburn.

Both players say they enjoy the chemistry they’ve established in quick order.

“Nick keeps his game simple, and he’s a veteran guy,” said Coburn. “He’s big and we have good communication with each other. I know where he is and things like who takes which guy on a crossover. A player like him is very easy to play with.”

Adds Grossmann, “Coby’s game is a little more like mine [than Robidas]. We both try to be physical and use our size to our advantage to shut down the other team. He’s an unbelievable skater and he can get the puck up the ice fast with his passes. So I think it’s worked out really good so far.”

Grossmann’s style of play is reminiscent of other sturdy Swedish defenseman of the recent past, such as Mattias Norstrom (a standout shutdown defenseman for three teams in the late-1990s to mid-2000s) or former Flyers blueliner Marcus Ragnarsson. Grossmann points to Norstrom, who finished his NHL career in Dallas at the time Grossmann was a youngster cracking the big club, as someone who influenced him.

“When I was coming up in the Dallas system, he was very helpful to me and he’s a great guy,” said Grossmann. “When you’re a young player, you get compared to this guy or that guy and you find a few players that you can follow a little bit in working on your own game. Mattias was one of those guys for me. He was a good defenseman in the NHL for a long time, so he was someone I learned from.”
Grossmann spent his first six years in the NHL with the Dallas Stars (2006-07 to 2011-12)

Asked to compare his roles in Dallas and Philadelphia, Grossmann said that his duties are essentially the same. However, he admits that it took him a few practices and games to start to feel comfortable with some of the subtle differences on breakouts and alignments between Peter Laviolette’s up-tempo system and the slightly more conservative style that Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan employs with fewer offensive weapons at his disposal.

There has been one noticeable difference between the player in his Philadelphia and Dallas tenures: the spelling of his last name.

Although Nicklas’ parents, Rolf and Mona-Lisa, have always spelled the family’s surname with two Ns, their son's name had been erroneously spelled “Grossman” on his uniform and locker room nameplate from the time he played hockey in Sweden for Sodertalje SK in through his NHL career. The mistake went uncorrected until last month.

“When I was a young player, I think I was 18 or so, I didn’t want make a big deal out it, so I didn’t say anything,” he said. “They put in my jersey in Sweden with one N and it just stayed that way over here. After a while, I didn’t even think about it anymore.”

Several days and two games after the player’s arrival in Philadelphia, Flyers director of team services Bryan Hardenbergh noticed the discrepancy between the spelling of Grossmann's surname on his Swedish passport and the spelling on his uniform, nameplate and registration with the league.  Hardenberg asked Grossmann if he wanted it to be corrected, and the player took the team up on the offer.

No matter how his last name is spelled, Grossmann’s arrival has been a godsend for the Flyers at a time when the defense has been racked with injuries and the playoffs are fast approaching.

An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Grossmann says that his entire focus right now is on doing his part to assist the Flyers toward making a deep run in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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