Nicklas who? No, not Detroit’s Lidstrom - it was third-year defenseman Nicklas Grossman of the Dallas Stars.
Frequent followers of the Stars also may have been a little surprised to see Grossman topping all NHLers for most of October, as he hovered around the +10, +11 mark much of the month.
It’s ironic that Grossman, a stay-at-home, shut-down defenseman, has thrived in first-year coach Marc Crawford’s more aggressive offensive style of play, but he has clearly taken another step forward in his third year. Moved up to the Stars’ top defense pairing with Stephane Robidas
, Grossman has flourished while often facing the opposition’s forwards.
The 24-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, has embraced his increased role in 2009-10, averaging 18:44 of ice time per game, a significant upgrade from the 17:38 he averaged last season. He has also collected two assists in 19 games through Saturday’s 5-3 win over New Jersey, and although his plus/minus has dropped a bit, his +7 is still tops on the Stars.
“I think it’s kind of been one more step of responsibility from last year,” agreed Grossman. “We’re pretty often against the top lines and it’s a big task, but at the same time, it’s a great challenge. Every night, your job is to shut them down. Some nights, you do well and other nights, they have a good night - that’s the way it goes. My goal, and I know Robi’s goal, is every night try to be hard to play against. It’s more responsibility, and I like it.”
Grossman, who first came over from Sweden in 2005-06 and played two seasons with the Stars’ AHL affiliate in Iowa before earning himself an eight-game audition at the end of ’06-07, has come a long way since then. So how has he progressed so far, so quickly? It’s been a steady climb.
“He’s a good player,” said Robidas. “Since the first time he came down here, he’s improved a lot. I had the chance to play a lot with him last year and this year, we’ve been together since Day 1 of training camp, he’s been my only partner. He’s a fun guy to play with. He plays hard, he plays the right way. He’s big, he’s strong, he can skate, he can move the puck.”
“I’ve played with Nicky for a few years now,” noted fellow third-year defenseman Mark Fistric
. “We played in Iowa together, we were D partners there, and to see him, he’s playing a lot of big minutes against a lot of the teams’ top lines and I think that the way he plays and the way he limits top lines’ chances every night, is a great thing. He’s the type of player that you definitely need on the team and he’s doing a really good job right now.”
Grossman, who was the Stars’ second-round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, started 2007-08 back in Iowa before getting called up to the big club after 10 AHL games and has been a fixture in Dallas ever since. His play improved throughout that season and he was excellent in the 2008 playoffs, skating in all 18 games as the Stars advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
Last year, he continued his gradual improvement, utilizing his combination of solid positioning with impressive size (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) to deliver crushing bodychecks. He ended 2008-09 with 178 hits, ranking fourth on the squad, and blocked 100 shots, third on the club.
This year, the additional ice time and responsibility have helped raise Grossman’s confidence level, which has in turn helped boost his performance, which thereby inflates his confidence further.
“He’s confident, he knows what he can do, he knows he can play against the best players in the league,” said Robidas, who at 32, is a perfect mentor for Grossman. “Even though he’s a young guy, he’s a mature guy. He’s not cocky or arrogant, he’s very humble.”
The soft-spoken Grossman gives his partner a lot of credit for helping accelerate his development.
“I can’t really put it in words - ever since I got here, really, he’s been kind of a big brother to look up to,” Grossman said of Robidas. “We had great guys around here, too, like (former Dallas defenseman Mattias) Norstrom, but those guys are gone and Robi being kind of the go-to guy now, he’s been around longest on this team. He’s been great, on and off the ice. He’s been talking, he’s always positive, and just to see him play out there every night, that makes me want to play harder. He’s a great player to look up to and get help from.”
“I think he wants to learn a lot,” added Robidas, who topped all Stars with 23:35 of ice time. “We talk a lot, and I like it, because in practice, in the games, during intermission, we talk a lot about plays, how we want to play that, how we want to do it. We try to always be on top of it, little things that happen, we always try to correct it right away and see what we can do better. Even in practice, when we do those 3-on-2 drills, we always talk to each other before we go and, ‘Okay, let’s try to do that, let’s try to shut them down.’ I think he takes it as a challenge and the same thing for me, too.”
Grossman, whose experience earning a bronze medal skating for Team Sweden at the 2009 World Championships also helped boost his confidence, has met the challenge head-on, determined to continue his upward trajectory.
“I’ve always been a guy to try to push myself,” Grossman said. “No matter how good it goes, how bad it goes, try to get better every day and just work on stuff, hard work. With new coaches this year and a new system, they put me in from the start. I really didn’t have a choice - they said, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be right now and you got to embrace it.’ That’s basically the way it was. I had a task in front of me, and I just had to find a way to get it done. It’s a tough job, but it’s a great challenge every night and every day in practice, and I just try to every day work on it and get better.”
Crawford has been most impressed by Grossman’s attitude and the way he has delivered on his expectations.
“The biggest part of it, I think, is just his desire to play against top guys and show that he’s good enough,” Crawford said. “That’s what you need. Everybody asks, ‘What makes a player?’ I think the player is the guys that decides, ‘I want to be a player,’ and then they put the work in and they have the confidence to try things. For him, that’s been more about the defensive side and challenging people, rising to the challenge against good and skilled players.”
About the only aspect of his game the defensive-minded Grossman has not enhanced significantly while he’s been in Dallas is his offense. Through 173 career regular season contests, Grossman had compiled just 21 points and took 110 games to score his first regular season NHL goal.
But Robidas has been encouraging him to use his hard shot from the point more often in an attempt to boost that area of his repertoire.
“He’s got a heavy shot - that’s something that I think he can shoot the puck a little more,” Robidas said. “He’s got a really heavy shot and he can create some bounces and even some goals with that heavy shot.”
“Yeah, he’s been on me a little bit about that, actually,” confirmed Grossman, who also scored a goal in the 2008 Western Conference Finals to go along with the two he ended last season with. “I have been working on the shot. It might be heavy, but you got to find a way to get it through out there in games, when you got a lot of pressure. We’ve been working on that a lot, for both of us. He shoots a lot, I’d like to be able to do that, too - get me some more time and get that shot off. It’s a work in progress, just try to get better every day and try to be a little smarter, and finally, maybe a couple of those can trickle in.”
But even if he doesn’t contribute much offensively, Grossman has still filled a very valuable role for the Stars this season with consistent, steady, if somewhat anonymous excellence.