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Grossman took big step forward in Year 3

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

After the Dallas Stars surrendered 254 goals against in 2009-10, their most since allowing 280 in 1995-96, it is no secret that the club that missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season  struggled at times defensively, but little of that can be pinned on the performance of third-year blueliner Nicklas Grossman. 

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The 25-year-old Swedish defenseman elevated his game this season, getting promoted to the top pairing with veteran Stephane Robidas and excelling while facing the opposition’s top offensive stars most of the year.

In 71 games, Grossman recorded a plus/minus rating of -3, which ranked third among regular defensemen and stands as a solid stat considering the team overall was a net -21. He also registered seven assists, dished out 150 hits (third among Dallas blueliners) and blocked 100 shots (fourth on the squad). 

“I felt okay. I’ve been playing a lot, but you can always get better. That’s what I’m striving for,” assessed the humble Grossman, whose average ice time of 19:11 was significantly higher than the 17:39 he logged in 2008-09. “I think it’s kind of been one more step of responsibility from last year. 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. It’s more responsibility, and I like it, and that’s part of the progress, I think.”

Certainly, Stars management felt pleased with the way Grossman ramped up his play this past season. His advanced development was crucial to their ability to stay in the playoff race until the final week of the season.

“I think he’s played extremely well this year,” said coach Marc Crawford. “We’re consistently trying to add another element into his game, for him to be able to play against top guys and improve his mobility defensively and just be able to handle the speed and skill of top guys.”

“We’ve asked a number of our defensemen to play significant roles early in their careers here,” added General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “Nicklas Grossman has stepped up and played big minutes this year.”

Teaming him up with the gritty Robidas was also a key component of the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Grossman’s improvement this season, as the youngster absorbed a lot from the veteran.

“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 the 33-year-old Robidas. “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 been great. He’s a great player to look up to and get help from.”

“This year, we’ve been together since Day 1 of training camp, he’s a fun guy to play with,” Robidas said. “I think he wants to learn a lot. 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. I think he takes it as a challenge and the same thing for me, too.” 

As the season progressed, Grossman was determined to prove that he could rise to the task of competing with and shutting down some of the NHL’s best opposing forwards. And when he did demonstrate those abilities, his confidence grew and that in turn fueled even better performances, which further increased his confidence and so on.

“The biggest part of it, I think, is just his desire to play against (top offensive) guys and show that he’s good enough,” Crawford said of Grossman taking the next step in his game this year. “That’s what you need. I think the player is the guy 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.”

“I’ve always been a guy to try to push myself,” said Grossman, the Stars’ second-round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “No matter how good it goes, how bad it goes, just try to get better every day and work on stuff. I think, 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.’ Basically, 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.”

Robidas in particular has been impressed with the way Grossman has handled himself while tackling such an important role.

“He’s confident, he knows what he can do, he knows he can play against the best players in the league,” said Robidas, who likes to point how, when he was 25, he was still struggling to find his way as an NHL player. “He’s just mature. Even though he’s a young guy, he’s a mature guy. He’s not cocky or arrogant, he’s very humble. He plays hard, he plays the right way, he’s a good defenseman. He’s big, he’s strong, he can skate, he can move the puck.”

Another factor in his transformation from young depth defenseman in 2008-09 to shut-down anchor this past season can be attributed some to the growth Grossman experienced while competing for his country in last season’s World Championships, an elite-level international tournament pitting the best players not still battling in the NHL playoffs. 

In nine games, Grossman contributed one assist while helping Team Sweden win a bronze medal. He was asked to suit up again for the tournament coming up on May 7 in Germany, but hasn’t yet decided if he’s going to participate.

“I’ve got to straighten some things out contract-wise, but I would love to play,” said Grossman, whose expiring contract means he will become a restricted free agent in July, so it’s highly unlikely he’ll be leaving the Stars. “They asked me and it’s an honor to go and play for the national team. I think it’s a great experience just to play a tournament like that with all of the good players. It’s a fun experience, too - I had a blast. We finished third last year, got a bronze medal. It was fun. I think if you can play hockey longer with the situation we’re in - we didn’t make the playoffs - I think it’s a good thing.”

As much as he enjoyed the experience of skating in such a prestigious tournament, Grossman hopes he won’t have the opportunity next year, noting that he will dedicate his off-season to coming back even better for 2010-11.

“You try to build on things,” Grossman said of his off-season plans. “Getting stronger this summer, have a good summer with workouts and we’ll get back next year and take another step in the right direction. We’ve got a pretty young group here. But I think every year, it’s one more step on the way to getting better.”

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