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Grossman quietly growing into top-notch shutdown defenseman

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Despite the fact that Nicklas Grossman usually flies a bit under the radar as far as media recognition is concerned, there is little question that the 26-year-old Dallas Stars defenseman has played a significant role in the club’s strong start this season.

He isn’t very flashy and the casual fan probably doesn’t notice him too much - which means he’s likely doing his job as a top-notch shutdown defensive defenseman.

Now in his fifth full season with the Stars, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound native of Stockholm, Sweden has developed into the type of defensive anchor that every successful team needs to have success.

Grossman has been an integral part of the club’s 24-19-2 start that has seen them hovering around the Pacific Division lead for much of the year.

“He’s playing exactly the way we want him to - he defends hard, he plays hard, he’s a heavy guy,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “I thought he’s been a really solid player for us. I’m really pleased with his play and he’s given us everything.”

“Grossie’s a big body and he uses his body very well and when he crushes them, they feel it,” added veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas, who spent much of last season paired with Grossman. “He’s using his stick very well, and he’s got good mobility for a big man. I think sometimes guys get surprised by his mobility, because he’s a big body but at the same time, he can move and that’s not always the case with big guys. He’s a smart player, he knows how he needs to play and obviously, he’s getting older and he’s adding more stuff to his game. He’s got patience with the puck, he’s got poise where he can make plays. You can see him retrieving the puck in the corner, he’s not just going to throw it away, he’s going to make plays. To me, I just look at him and he’s been a very, very effective player.”

While he doesn’t show up too often on the scoresheet, as his five assists in 42 games indicates, Grossman has provided the crucial element of physicality in the Dallas zone, both at even-strength and while killing penalties. With the Stars third in the NHL with 1,236 hits through Jan. 17, Grossman’s 73 ranked third among Dallas blueliners.

Grossman also led the squad with 86 blocked shots, hovering around the league’s top 25 individually and well within range of his career-high of 100 set in 2008-09 and matched the next season.  He has also registered a +6 plus/minus rating, while averaging 19:11 of ice time per game, including 16:40 at even-strength, good for third on the club. 

“You always want to go for the big hits, it pumps me up and it pumps the team up, but once you get running around and looking for it, you get out of position and in today’s game, you just can’t do it,” Grossman said of his approach towards hitting. “If you go for the big hit and guys get by you, you get burned and you’re just chasing all game. If it’s there, I take it, I try to be physical more just using my body in front of the net, being tough to get around, instead of maybe going for the big, open ice hit all the time. It’s really more being in control.”

One situation that has helped Grossman’s growth this season is the strong chemistry he’s developed with his partner for most of the year, the smooth-skating Trevor Daley. The two have formed a formidable duo, with each bringing a unique skillset to the table that enable them to mesh really well together.

“He’s a heck of a hockey player, it’s not often you see a guy skate like that, be able to move out of situations and the way he joins the play, I think it’s a good combination,” said Grossman, the Stars’ second-round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “Me being a little slower guy, a little bigger, a little more physical, a little more defensive and he’s more the other way - a little smaller, a lot quicker, good skater and likes to join the offense, so I think we’re a good complement for each other. Maybe he feels that he knows that I’m always back there and he can join the rush a little more. He’s always been a little offensive-minded, it’s good, we need that.”

“It’s been pretty good so far, obviously there’s room for improvement for both of us, and we want to keep improving, we’re still newlyweds together, but it’s a good match,” Daley said. “Grossie’s a stay-at-home guy and wants me to go and he’s able to make plays, and it’s good for me, too, to have a guy like that.”

Even Robidas, who has primarily teamed with Sheldon Souray this season, has noticed how well-suited Grossman and Daley are for each other, to the point where they’ve evolved into the club’s top defensive pairing this year.

“The last couple of years, (Grossman’s) been very solid and him and Trevor together, they’ve been a great defensive pair,” said Robidas. “They can go against any top line in the league, and they can shut them down. They both complement each other. You’ve got Gross who’s going to stay back, he’s not going to rush the puck down the ice and he lets Trevor do that job, and at the same time, he helps Trevor because he doesn’t have to spend as much time in his own zone. Grossie will go in the corner, bang those guys and deaden the cycle or Trevor will go and support the puck and get it out and then he can jump in the rush and do his thing offensively. I think when you have two players who complement each other like that, it’s just a great mix. And that’s been very effective.”

One aspect that Grossman has especially upgraded over the last year or two has been his leadership abilities on the blue line. For years considered one of the Stars’ stable of young defenders, Grossman has matured into a strong and well-respected presence in the dressing room.

“He’s a guy that’s taken things on his own shoulders and he’s kind of a veteran stabilizer with us,” noted Gulutzan, citing 22-year-old rookie Philip Larsen as one player who has benefited from Grossman’s guidance. “We can put a Larsen or someone with him and he stabilizes them, so you can see that maturity taking place with Gross, he’s becoming a big leader for us now.”

“He’s a big part of our D group, he always has a positive attitude, he’s always happy,” added Robidas, a key leader in his own right. “He’s the type of guy that could be like a captain, he’s got that (quality). He knows how to play and he knows the little things and he wants to win. He’ll do anything to win, he’ll do anything to help a teammate and to me, he’s just a really good, effective defenseman.”

For first-year Dallas assistant coach Paul Jerrard, Grossman’s performance this season is not surprising, even though the Swedish blueliner has clearly progressed quite a bit since he last played for Jerrard. Grossman’s first two years in North America, back in 2005-06 and ’06-07, were spent apprenticing with the Stars’ former AHL affiliate in Iowa, where Jerrard was also an assistant coach. 

“That’s the Nick Grossman I remember when he left us in Iowa,” said Jerrard, who served as Gulutzan’s assistant coach at AHL Texas for two seasons before both made the jump to the NHL this year. “He was really emerging as a top defender down there that gave a big presence with his big body and he’s doing that up in the National Hockey League, so it’s been great, for him and for our group. He plays a pretty simple, efficient game and he’s done a real nice job for us this year.”

“Paulie talked about Grossie when he had him in Iowa and raved about him,” added Gulutzan. “And I see the same things that Paulie raved about when he was in Iowa. I see them in the NHL and even moreso than I saw last year when I watched video or watched the games, so I think Paul and his relationship has been good for Grossie and his game is coming to a new level.”

Pretty much the only component of the game that Grossman hasn’t mastered is contributing offensively, having recorded just three goals and 38 points in 313 career NHL contests. It is something he’d like to upgrade at some point, but not at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. Still, the coaching staff is encouraging him to pay a bit more attention to directing shots on goal.

“His offensive game has picked up, the number of shots he’s putting on net, and his offensive contributions,” acknowledged Gulutzan. “He has the ability to get shots through, he’s got a big, heavy shot.”

“Believe me, it’s always something I have in the back of my head,” admitted Grossman, who had fired 32 shots on goal through his first 42 games, which puts him on pace to challenge his career high of 60 from 2008-09. “I would love to score more and get more into the offense, but I don’t want to push it, either, and start to do offensive stuff and then you start to lack defensively. That’s not the kind of player I am. I just got to keep working, keep doing things in practice, keep shooting the puck and hopefully a couple trickle in.”

It’s just another challenge for Grossman, who has grown into the Stars’ much-needed steady, physical presence that can be a defensive lynchpin on the blue line.

“It’s going all right, I think,” he said. “You always want to get better and push yourself and that’s what I’m always aiming for.”

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