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Back In The Battle

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The recent announcement that Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov will be sidelined for four weeks, which includes the first week of the upcoming regular season, just means that the club will once again have to rely on their trio of young defensemen who excelled as rookies last year.

One in particular who had a major impact in the second half of last season and in the playoffs was 23-year-old Swede Nicklas Grossman. Now that he’s gained some experience and has already tasted NHL success, Grossman will be expected to pick up where he left off and provide important contributions to the Dallas defense.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Grossman, a hard-hitting, stay-at-home defender, is excited to get back to work, as training camp began Friday.

“I’m real thrilled, I’ve been working for this all summer,” said Grossman, who’s been in town for several weeks skating at the Stars’ practice facility at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco. “I think, with the season we had, being so close, it makes you even hungrier. You just want to come back and do it even better this year, so yeah, I’m real excited and I’m happy to be back.”

After fulfilling a key role on defense during the Stars’ run to the Western Conference Finals, Grossman recognizes that the club will be counting on him to do even more this year, particularly with veteran shut-down defender Mattias Norstrom retired. 

“I got more expectations on me this year, and maybe grabbing a bigger role on the team,” acknowledged Grossman, who was paired mostly with Stephane Robidas. “Now that Matty’s gone, there’s a couple of big shoes to fill. It’s a great challenge and I’m looking forward to it.”

“I think a lot’s expected of all those guys,” said captain Brenden Morrow of the young defensemen, including Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric. “Nick’s kind of, you can call him the older veteran of the group. He’s been around a bit. We’re not going to need anything special, just good solid defense and I think he’s well aware of his role and gained a lot of experience last year.”

Grossman, the Stars’ second round pick (56th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft, has now spent three years in North America, the first two primarily at AHL Iowa, and has improved significantly in each one. He did come up to Dallas at the end of the 2006-07 season, suiting up for eight games and getting an initial taste of the NHL.

Then last season, Grossman started the year back in Iowa, but was promoted to the Stars in November as an injury replacement and never left, skating in 67 contests, registering seven assists and averaging 15:33 of ice time per game. He got better and better as the year continued, peaking in the post-season as he skated in all 18 games, registering a goal and an assist and logging 18:37 of ice time per outing.

The coaching staff has definitely been happy with his progress.

“The strides he’s taken are basically that of natural maturity,” noted Stars associate coach Rick Wilson, who is in charge of the defensemen. “Physically getting stronger, experience-wise getting to know the North American game, the size of rinks and speed, and the next stride with that - and he developed that last year quite significantly - is the confidence to play that game.

“Now we’re looking for even more consistency and even a little more in the execution side on both sides - a little more execution with his physical side without the puck and a little more execution with his puck movement when given the opportunity. We’d like to see a little more in that area, we think he has the potential to grow in that area, and so we’re looking forward to that being another step.”

Norstrom, also Swedish, acted as somewhat of a mentor and role model for Grossman last year, so his presence will be missed.

“I’m going to miss him a lot, just both off and on the ice,” Grossman admitted. “He’s a great guy off the ice and he’s great with the guys in the locker room, and I don’t think you can find one guy in here who doesn’t like him, that’s the way he is. Of course we’re going to miss him, that’s part of life and part of the game, guys come and go. I think I learned a lot from him and I’m going to use that in the future. I just got to keep looking forward.”

Without the gritty, physical Norstrom on the ice, Grossman is just one of several defenders who will be needed to assume those responsibilities.

“That’s that role that Nick plays, he’s that big Swede that we’ll be missing with Norstrom gone,” Morrow said. “Hopefully he can slide right in there and him and Fisty can do that job and kill the penalties and play physical and bang some bodies around and be a presence.”

“Everybody’s going to have to chip in a little more,” Robidas said. “It’s like last year in the playoffs when Zubie went down and Bouch went down - I don’t think you can ask one guy to replace another guy. It’s a team concept and when things like that happen, that’s part of the game. Everybody’s got to chip in a little more, and obviously, guys are going to have maybe more responsibility and going have to take on more leadership.”

Being paired with Robidas last year was a good match for Grossman, who also learned quite a bit from his feisty veteran partner.

“He’s helped me out a lot,” Grossman said. “On and off the ice, practices, games, whatever, he’s always been there for me, he’s helped me out with tips and stuff. I think he’s been a great contribution to my success and I’m looking forward to playing with him this year.”

“He’s really easy for me to play with him,” Robidas said. “He plays a simple game but really effective. He’s a big guy, strong guy, he can skate, he can move the puck, he can block shots, he can be physical, and he’s just a good, reliable defenseman. He proved it last year, he’s NHL-caliber and now we expect - he’s a year older and he’s got a year’s experience in the NHL and like everybody else, you expect to be better every year and it’s no different for him.”

One aspect of his game that Grossman acknowledges he would like to improve on is offense. But Grossman, who has yet to score a regular season goal in 70 career games but did collect one in the playoffs (Game 3 against Detroit), knows that his effectiveness stems from his solid defensive play.

“I think you still got to work on what took you here and you got to respect your role on the team, and I know my role,” Grossman said, “but as I get a little confident, I want to work on my offensive game, so if I can pick that up a notch, that would be great.”

If Grossman continues his development at anywhere near the same rate he’s progressed the last several years, the Stars will be in good shape.

“We know it’s not going to be without some bumps in the road,” Wilson said of Year Two, “but we believe all the young guys have the character to get over the bumps, fight through it, learn, grow, get back in the battle and get better. We’re expecting that from all those young guys, not just Nicklas.”
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