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Grossman helping anchor Stars’ defensive resurgence

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Many factors have lifted the Dallas Stars to the top of the Pacific Division standings coming out of the All-Star break, but one of the more overlooked has been the club’s improved team defense.

Nicklas Grossman
And a key part of the Stars’ defensive excellence this season has been the strong play of their top blueline pairing of Stephane Robidas and Nicklas Grossman. 

For the 26-year-old Grossman, in his fourth full NHL season, this year has marked yet another step forward in his evolution into one of the league’s better shutdown defenders, not to mention one of its best-kept secrets.

But while the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Swede isn’t the most dynamic player on the ice and doesn’t receive a lot of attention from fans or the media, there’s no question his contributions have been greatly appreciated by the guys sitting beside him in the dressing room.

“I think that’s just kind of what Nicky does, he flies under the radar a lot and he’s a big part of why we’re at where we’re at in the season,” noted fellow defenseman Mark Fistric. “He just quietly goes about his business. You don’t really notice him because he doesn’t bring that flashy side, but he’s a big, steady guy and him and Robi have been together for a long time and they’re a big reason why we’re where we are right now.”

“He’s been great since I’ve been playing with him,” added Robidas, 33, who has been primarily paired with Grossman over the last two-plus seasons. “He’s an easy guy to play with. He had a great year last year, too - even though we didn’t make the playoffs, I thought he played real well. He does all the little things right and a lot of times, it goes unnoticed and he does those things night-in, night-out. And I bet if you ask the opponents if you like to play against him, a lot of guys would say they don’t like it. That’s why he’s been really effective.”

The humble, soft-spoken Grossman accepts and embraces his role, and is in fact energized by the challenge of trying to shut down other teams’ top offensive lines, both in 5-on-5 situations and on the penalty kill.

“It’s maybe not the thing that you see in the newspapers every day, but it’s a job that has to be done,” said Grossman, who been particularly impressive recently, despite playing the last couple of weeks with a couple of ‘minor fractures’ on his hand. “I love my job. I take a lot of pride in it and I know Robi does too. It’s great going out there every night and trying to have a big challenge ahead of you, trying to shut the other teams’ big lines down. For me, it keeps me on top of things, always be prepared and try to have a good game, and try to play hard and simple and try to help each other out. We’ve been playing well together for awhile now, (being paired with Robi) is for sure helping out. We kind of know what’s going on out there all the time with each other.”

While logging 19:07 of ice time per game, third-most among Stars defensemen, Grossman has registered a +3 plus/minus rating. He has also dished out 128 hits, which fittingly enough, is tied with Robidas for third on the squad, while his 61 blocked shots is fourth. 

His strong defensive zone coverage has helped the Stars allow just 137 goals through the All-Star break, a total that was greatly inflated by the uncharacteristic 14 goals they gave up in back-to-back road games last week, but still ranks fifth in the Western Conference. It’s a dramatic improvement compared to the 254 they surrendered all of last season, which was 13th in the West and a big reason they missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. 

Clearly, the experience Grossman earned while being thrust into a prime role over the last two seasons has helped accelerate his development to where now, as he continues to refine his game, he is more than capable of handling the responsibility. 

“He’s more comfortable now being in that top pair, playing against top guys,” coach Marc Crawford said. “He’s really shown a great progression this year in being able to play against top people throughout the league, so we’ve been really pleased with Nick. He’s a big guy, he makes a great first pass, he’s got great mobility, takes people out with authority. He can play against tough good players, he can play against skilled good players, and those are great elements to have as a top defensive pairing.

“I think he played a lot of those situations the last couple of years maybe when he wasn’t 100 percent ready for it, and we’re reaping the benefits now of him having played so much earlier in his career.” 

Grossman, who was the Stars’ second-round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft, has certainly come a long way since he first arrived in North America from Sweden in 2005-06. He spent two seasons developing at AHL Iowa, where he helped the Stars’ top minor league affiliate at the time advance to the second round of the 2007 playoffs alongside current teammates Fistric, Matt Niskanen and Loui Eriksson, before he cracked the parent squad’s lineup for good in 2007-08.

“My first real memory of me and Nicky was in the playoffs in Iowa, we were D partners together,” Fistric recalled of the 2007 AHL post-season. “I still remember, we were up in Omaha and we were huge underdogs and we were ready to seal out the series and we had a 5-on-3 against us and Grossie must have blocked 15 shots in about 30 seconds. He’s just gotten better every year and I think he’s had a lot of good mentors throughout his career. I think that (former Stars defenseman Mattias) Norstrom, a fellow Swede, really helped him, too. He’s always willing to learn, and I think that’s helped him.” 

Norstrom retired in 2008 and since then, Grossman has taken on the role of Robidas’ apprentice, which has clearly been an outstanding fit for both.

“We’ve played together for awhile and we really know each other out on the ice, we don’t really have to talk much,” Grossman said of his veteran partner. “He’s been great. He’s a huge part of this team and a solid piece of the D corps, because he’s just a great role model for us other guys to look up to. He’s doing the right things all the time, on and off the ice and I think it’s great to have a guy like that on our team. It’s been awesome to play with the guy and I just hope we’re going to keep doing that for a long time.”

 In addition to his top-notch defending, Grossman has actually shown a bit of flair in the offensive zone lately. While his slap shot that beat a screened Henrik Karlsson in Calgary on Jan. 21 during a 7-4 loss was just his third career goal in 270 NHL games, and his first in almost two years (a span of 130 games), Grossman has actually registered four points (one goal, three assists) in the last eight contests heading into the All-Star break.  
“No kidding, it’s been awhile, 120-130 games or so, it’s kind of nice to get that one off your back, but it doesn’t do much if you’re not winning the game,” said Grossman of the rare tally. “For sure, it was a good feeling. It’s been awhile and when you don’t score a lot, it’s a good feeling when you do. I’d rather take a win than a goal, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Included in his recent burst of offense, which followed a span of 17 games in which he posted just one assist, was a beautiful pass to Mike Ribeiro to set up a goal in the Stars’ 4-2 win in Edmonton on Jan. 20.

“He’s a strong defender, and he can make plays, too,” Robidas said. “Lately, you can see his confidence with the puck, how he made a nice play there in Edmonton, it was a beautiful play.”

“It’s weird how it comes and goes,” Grossman said of his sporadic appearances on the scoresheet. “You can be pointless for 15-20 games and then have a stretch where four of them comes in seven or eight games. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. I think Ribby made a nice play and I just tried to get it back to him, and he fed me (in Calgary), so that’s just the way it goes. 

“For sure, it’s fun to try to contribute more offensively if I can, try to help the guys out a little, but the main focus is the defense and trying to do a good job there.” 

Despite the thrill of finding the back of the net, Grossman knows his area of expertise, and he takes great pride in the club’s much tighter defensive performance this year, although he also passes some praise along to goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft.

“When you play defense, if two guys don’t do their job, it’s not going to work,” Grossman explained. “You need all five guys and on the penalty kill, all the four guys plus the goalie of course, and they’ve done a great job, Razor and Kari all season, helping us out and we try to help them out, letting them see the puck. Just try to battle hard and try to stay tight in your own zone, that’s the big key. You just got to try to outwork the other guys. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-on-5 or on the PK, if you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to defend well.”

And while he may not be the Stars’ most recognizable name, there’s no question Grossman has contributed significantly to the club’s success this season by doing just that.

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