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Grossman proving he's more than just an injury fill-in

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It speaks to how well a rookie has been performing when he is recalled from the minor leagues as an injury replacement, and about two months later, he remains with the big club.

That’s the situation Dallas Stars defenseman Nicklas Grossman finds himself in, coming up from the Stars’ top AHL affiliate in Iowa on Nov. 8, and playing consistently well on a club that has experienced long stretches of success along with some speedbumps like the current four-game losing streak.

In the 28 games since his arrival, the steady, unassuming defensive defenseman has been solid, earning two assists and a plus/minus rating of + 2, often pairing with veteran Stephane Robidas. His ability to step in and contribute while blue line leaders like Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom have missed time with injuries has been crucial to the Stars’ fortunes, including their recent 8-1-0 hot streak through late December.

Also a key penalty killer, Grossman has helped the Stars fashion the NHL’s second-best PK unit, a group that has allowed just one power play goal against in the last 31 opportunities over nine games.

“He’s been very solid,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s not a flashy player, he’s big, strong, carries a lot of area, and has been strong with his stick. Our penalty killing has been very steady, he’s a big part of that right now. He’s just played a simple, strong game that’s been - him and Robidas have been a very strong pair for us.”

“For a young player, what I’ve seen and what we hoped to see, was steadiness, in position, effectiveness with the puck play, which is very encouraging, and then some physicality when given the opportunity,” added Associate Coach Rick Wilson, who works primarily with the defensemen as well as the penalty kill unit. “Not overdoing it and running around, but when the opportunity is there, he demonstrated that he wants to put his weight into people. Those three things I like what I’ve seen.”

For his part, the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Grossman, two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, continues to progress and picks up new things every day. 

“I think it’s going pretty good, I try to make the best of every day I’m here,” said Grossman, a native of Stockholm, Sweden in his third season skating in North America. “I try to go out there and do my job and try to contribute to make the team win. I feel I’m learning every day, just being around these guys. I think it’s helped me out a lot and the guys are great, so it’s been a good time.”

“I’ve been playing with him for over a month now, and he’s been really solid, he’s been really effective,” Robidas said. “He’s been solid defensively, he can make a good pass and he’s one of the reasons why we’ve been winning. We need guys like that to step up and he had his chance and I think he took it.”

Grossman, the Stars’ second round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, got his first taste of the NHL last season with eight games in Dallas and performed admirably, as the club went 7-0-1 with him in the lineup. 

Both Grossman and the Stars’ coaching staff agree that those eight games, during which he logged just 12:48 of ice time per game, was valuable experience.

“I think it helped me out a lot, coming into this season,” Grossman acknowledged. “It helped me get a feel for how it works, everything, just get a couple of games and kind of get into the groove. It helped me out a lot during the summer, I knew how to prepare and what to prepare for, so I think it was good for me, a good experience, a good couple of games to have in the luggage.”

“It helped a little bit, he wasn’t totally green,” Wilson concurred. “But since he’s been with us this time, we’ve been able to give him a lot more experiences. He’s got some penalty kill situations, he’s played against higher lines than he did last year. Last year, we protected maybe a little bit, watched where we play him. This year we feel more and more comfortable about having him on the ice against whoever’s on the ice. The encouraging part is he’s grabbed it and he’s running with it.”

Heading into training camp this year, the Stars had an opening up for grabs and after two good years in Iowa and his solid showing here last season, Grossman was expected to claim it. But a shoulder injury in camp derailed his opportunity, and with Grossman spending time in the trainer’s room, fellow rookie Matt Niskanen seized the open slot on the blue line. By the time Grossman recovered in early October, Niskanen was playing so well, the Stars opted to send Grossman back to Iowa.

“My goal was to come in here and crack the lineup,” Grossman said. “I wanted to play, of course, and coaches had said there were a couple of spots open and there was a lot of young guys coming in, Niskanen, (Mark) Fistric, everyone was battling for a spot, so it was pretty frustrating when you get hurt. But you can’t think of that too much, you just got to take it as it is, that’s the way of hockey, and you just got to try to get better fast and go from there.”

Then on Nov. 7, Norstrom suffered a fractured orbital bone and after 10 games in Iowa, Grossman was recalled to take his place the next day. Norstrom returned on Dec. 5 after sitting out 13 games, but by then, Boucher’s ongoing shoulder problem worsened to the point he had to leave the lineup and undergo surgery, and Grossman retained his spot in Dallas.

“He’s been great, he’s fit in really well in our backcourt,” noted fellow defenseman Trevor Daley. “He fits perfect into the way we play, our defensive game - he’s a big, tough defenseman that can move the puck and he can skate. In the game today, you need guys like that. He’s strong, too.”

Wilson has noticed a definite improvement in Grossman’s game since arriving in the NHL in early November.

“I think that he’s growing,” Wilson said. “The first thing that you’ve got to adjust to up here is the little bit of quickness to the game, the skillsets of players. There’s more players with higher levels of skill than the American League. The American League has really good skill, but they maybe don’t have the depth of it. There’s more here that will test you all the time, that will test you with skill and will test you with speed and I think his improvement is, he’s adapted quite quickly to both those things. That’s extremely encouraging.”

What is also impressive from the Stars’ point of view is that they can sustain injuries to such important players and be able to bring up reinforcement from Iowa to replace them and there’s little change in how the team performs. For example, when Norstrom recently missed three more games with a minor knee problem, the Stars summoned Fistric from Iowa and he played well, too, in his first NHL action.

“I think it speaks volumes for our young players and their commitment to coming in and playing well, for one, and I think it speaks volumes for the veterans that they’re with, they’ve grabbed these young guys and pushed them along,” Tippett noted. “The ultimate thing you look at is the success of our team lately is very good with these young players in there. That speaks very well for the organization and moving forward.”

“I think all the young guys that came in, they all played well and that’s what makes a good team and that shows the depth of our organization,” Robidas added. “When you’ve got big guys, like Boucher and Norstrom and (winger Jere) Lehtinen going down, you can’t replace those guys, but those guys have managed to play well to give us a chance to win every night.”

The success that players like Grossman, Fistric and forward Chris Conner, who was promoted from Iowa on Nov. 2 before going back down Friday, also proves that Iowa is fulfilling its role excellently as a development affiliate.

“I think that shows that Iowa is doing a good job with young guys, that guys like me and Fistric can come in here and do a good job and we can still keep winning,” Grossman said. “I think that’s a good sign. This is the time for us to show that we can play, this is the opportunity we got to take and just got to seize the opportunity.”

“I think what it shows is the excellent work they’re doing down in Iowa with the young guys,” echoed Wilson. “They’re really doing good work down there. Beyond that, is the identification of these players by our staff, they’re the first ones to see all this and they identified and put in a draft selection. By the time we get them up here, there’s a lot of work done. We have to make them comfortable and accountable and confident at this level, but there’s a lot of  people that have done a lot before they got here to us.”
Now that he is in Dallas maximizing his 14:35 of ice time, Grossman hopes to stay here long-term. With Boucher’s return timetable uncertain but expected within the next several weeks, Grossman just wants to make the best impression he can and hopes that will be enough to remain with the big club after everyone is healthy.

“Right now, I don’t really think of it, I just try to take it one game at a time,” he said of the possibility he might eventually go back to Iowa. “When the guys come back, it’s just up to the coaches. If I just do my job here and keep playing my game, I think I got a good shot at it. But with older guys coming back, they’ve been around long, the only thing you can do is give it 100 percent and try to control the things you can control and leave the rest up to the others.”
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