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Growing Pains

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

One year after a trio of rookie defensemen helped the Dallas Stars advance deep into the playoffs, both the team and those same blueliners individually endured a slew of ups and downs.

Riddled by injuries, including season-ending ones to captain Brenden Morrow and veteran defender Sergei Zubov, the Stars wound up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

But along the way, Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric each worked through their troubles and, thrust into more prominent roles out of necessity, matured and progressed significantly.

“It’s been a roller coaster here, and not having the playoffs, it’s kind of disappointing and empty right now,” said Grossman, 24, who probably performed the most consistently of the three. 

“There definitely have been a few bumps in the road,” admitted Niskanen, who finished with a sub-par -11 plus/minus rating, but was +1 over the final 21 contests. “That’s part of being a young guy, I think, and being new in the league. You got to learn and there’s going to be a few setbacks here and there, but it’s all about how you respond to it.”

After strong finishes, all three of them had their year extended beyond the Stars’ regular season. Niskanen and Grossman were rewarded with invitations to represent their respective countries at the prestigious World Championships tournament in Switzerland, while Fistric reported to AHL Manitoba and has helped spark them on a playoff run that has the Moose sitting on the verge of the Calder Cup Finals. 

Those additional experiences under high-stakes conditions should help advance the development process even further and can only benefit the Stars heading into next season. 

“I think it’s tremendous,” said Stars associate coach Rick Wilson, who usually handles the defenseman, regarding Niskanen and Grossman playing overseas. “What it says is that the rest of the league, the outside hockey world, recognizes these players are good players, really good players, on a world stage. I think it speaks volumes for our whole organization, how we recognize them, identify them, how we’re developing them, the whole thing. They’re still young, but they’re thought of as good players.”

“Every experience a young player can have like this, especially when you have some of the best players in the world, it can only help you,” added head coach Dave Tippett, who also served as associate coach for Team Canada. “Those experiences of playing games where every play counts, just enhances their ability to do it in the NHL, so I think it’s a great opportunity for young guys.”

They’ve all come a long way since last October. On top of the club’s injuries, struggles by Niskanen and Fistric, among others, helped contribute to the Stars’ early-season woes that saw them allow bucketfuls of goals and spend most of the first two months in last place in the Western Conference standings. But after some considerable growing pains, which included Fistric’s re-assignment to Manitoba for half the season, all three blueliners rebounded impressively. 

For Niskanen, 22, who completed his second NHL season with six goals and career highs in assists (29) and points (35), both totals that topped all Stars blueliners, his season seemed to turn around after he was paired up with veteran Darryl Sydor in late November. 

“He’s a great veteran leader, very vocal,” said Niskanen, who averaged 19:58 of ice time per game, of Sydor. “He’s a big help for me and he’s someone that I can look up to and kind of model my work ethic off of and see how he goes about his business every day as a professional hockey player. He’s a good role model. Just his voice in the locker room alone is very valuable and he’s also a solid hockey player and he knows how to win.”

The 37-year-old Sydor, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, made it a point to take Niskanen under his wing and his efforts clearly had an impact.

“He’s obviously a young kid that has a lot of capability and a lot of good assets,” said Sydor, who arrived in a trade with Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. “I remember when I was in those shoes and I played with older guys. You just try and talk to him a lot and help him out whenever he has questions and just try and keep him composed and mentally sharp. And he has all that, so it’s been a fun little time playing with him.”

As for Fistric, who turns 23 on June 1, he acknowledged it was difficult getting sent down to the AHL on Nov. 2, but he tried to keep a positive attitude and battled hard to work his way back to the NHL.

“It’s always tough getting sent down,” acknowledged Fistric, who skated in Manitoba with a team consisting primarily of Vancouver Canucks prospects since the Stars didn’t have their own AHL affiliate this season. “Obviously, you never want that to happen, especially when I had such a great year last year and a good playoff run. Coming to camp with such high expectations and not being able to meet them is definitely disappointing, and then you start to lose confidence in yourself because you expect so much out of yourself.

“But I kept it in the back of my head that I’ve proven that I could play here and I just tried to better myself every day I was down there, so when the call came to come back, I was ready to go.” 

Fistric, the Stars’ first-round choice (28th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft, regained his confidence and physical edge in Manitoba and formed an intimidating, body-banging duo with Grossman upon his recall on Feb. 14.

“A strong, physical presence, he’s played very well,” Tippett said of Fistric’s impact after his return to Dallas. “Him and Grossman combined to be a strong tandem, they defend well. They keep their puck play simple, they’re weighty and they’re making other teams’ forwards pay the price down low and that’s what we’re looking for.”

“Since he’s come back, he played real good, really playing physical and bringing that edge to the game,” said the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Grossman, who was picked in the second round (56th overall) in 2004’s Entry Draft. “I try to keep up with him when I see him running around out there (dishing out hits). It’s fun, it’s what me and him got to bring to the table.” 

The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Fistric’s physical contribution can be quantified by the 114 hits he delivered in just 36 games overall, finishing ninth on the Stars in that category, but his 96 in 25 contests since rejoining the squad in February provided an important element the Stars needed. Grossman ended up with 178 hits in 81 games, good for fifth on the team, and finished third with 100 blocked shots, while averaging 17:38 of ice time per contest.

“He’s shown steady improvement in positional play and aggressive play and puck play, so that’s very encouraging,” Wilson said of Fistric. “He has a little more of a confident look to him, just what we hoped he’d do in the minors - get lots of minutes, gain a little more experience and gain the confidence in those situations, with position, with the puck, with aggressiveness and special situations like penalty killing. He went and kind of resurrected his game again and actually has taken it to another level, which is what we wanted, too. There’s probably two or three or more levels to go, but he’s moving in the right direction.”

Since rejoining Manitoba for the AHL playoffs, Fistric has excelled under the spotlight, recording a goal and five assists in 13 games and playing well defensively.

Meanwhile, at the World Championships, Grossman earned one assist in nine games for Team Sweden, which defeated Niskanen’s Team USA 4-2 for the bronze medal on May 10. Niskanen played well, too, registering a goal and two assists in nine contests. Each was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate and recognized what they would gain from it.

“I was real excited getting the call,” said Grossman in mid-April, days before leaving for Switzerland. “It’s my first time there with the (senior) national team, so I was just real excited and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a great experience and a big honor to just put the national jersey on.” 

“It’s obviously a huge honor any time someone asks you to wear your country’s colors,” added Niskanen, who hails from Virginia, MN. “It should be a fun experience, there’s going to be a lot of good players there. Obviously, I’d much rather be playing in the playoffs, but it’ll be a good experience for me - I’ll get to travel, see Switzerland and play for my country. I’ll get to play some more hockey against some good players, be a little bit different format, big ice, international rules. It should help my game in the long run, I think.”

After all the adversity he - and the team overall - faced this season, Niskanen demonstrated wisdom beyond his years when he pointed out that he will benefit from what the hardships taught him.

“Last year I came in as a rookie and everything seemed to go really smooth for me,” said Niskanen, the club’s first-round selection (28th overall) in 2005. “Now, second year, expectations are a bit higher, team had high expectations and it was kind of a bumpy road for us, a lot of ups and downs. I think in the long run, it’s going to make myself a little better player and probably our team better. We kind of have seen both sides of it. We had a lot of success last year with the long playoff run and now this year, coming up short is definitely very frustrating and disappointing, but I think in the long run, it’s going to make us better, because we’ve kind of learned to deal with some adversity.”

Out of that, Niskanen believes the team will rebound next year and be more determined than ever to re-prove themselves as a legitimate contender.

“I think expectations are always going to be there, especially here in Dallas,” he said. “We’re going to be very excited for the season to get going, can’t wait to get back, and we’re going to be that much hungrier next year with hopefully a healthy lineup.”

With those three defensemen continuing their upward learning curve, the Stars’ blueline should be in fine shape moving forward.

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