While many observers suggested the Stars needed a new number one defenseman this season after Sergei Zubov left as a free agent, Dallas management had faith that Robidas could step up and fill the role himself and he has delivered admirably.
Through 32 games of 2009-10, Robidas has compiled seven goals and 19 points, both tops among club blueliners and already closing in on his career-highs of nine goals and 26 points. That total also includes five power play goals, which is tied for most on the team, demonstrating his importance to the success of that crucial aspect of the Stars’ game.
As evidence of his prowess at the other end of the ice, Robidas owns a +3 plus/minus rating, sixth on the Stars, and leads the team in ice time, averaging 23:59 per contest - all while facing the opposition’s top offensive players most of the time. Beyond that, the gritty 5-foot-11, 190-pound Robidas leads the entire NHL in hits, with 116, and ranks second on the team with 65 blocked shots.
He is as complete a defenseman as there is in the game right now, which is quite an accomplishment for a guy who had trouble getting into the lineup as recently as 2005-06. Now in his seventh season in Dallas, the 32-year-old Robidas is a crucial component of the club’s core, and General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk rewarded him accordingly when he signed him to a new four-year contract extension Oct. 1 that will pay him $13.2 million.
“We are very happy to sign Stephane to this contract extension,” Nieuwendyk said at the time. “He has been a rock for this team on the blueline and is a key member of our leadership group. Stephane is a consummate professional who gives us everything he has each night.”
Additionally, as the Stars’ longest-tenured blueliner, Robidas has served as a locker room leader and mentor to the club’s stable of under-25 defenders. Typically, the humble native of Sherbrooke, Quebec downplays his role as a team leader.
“That’s something that I really enjoy, it’s a good challenge for me,” said Robidas, a 10-year NHL veteran. “We’ve got a good group of defensemen, I really enjoy playing with those guys. I think we’re all learning together, we can get better, but I think we’re moving along and we’re getting better as the season’s moving forward. That’s something that I take pride in. It’s a good challenge for me, I’m not the most vocal guy, I’m just trying to lead by example and guys are doing a good job.”
“To me, Stephane is not doing anything extraordinary that he hasn’t done before,” noted goaltender Marty Turco. “He’s always been such a solid player over the last few years. And even though the team didn’t do as well last year, he was a bright spot, just that the team happens to be playing better around him and him being a leader and producing, continue to be a shut-down guy and a reliable guy while producing numbers, is just a sign of his continued leadership here for us. That’s been nothing but a good thing for us.”
His recent burst of offense, when he totaled four goals and three assists during a five-game stretch, also coincided with the Stars’ power play unit catching fire - over those give contests, it struck for a stellar 32.1-percent rate (9-for-28).
With his smooth skating and booming slap shot, Robidas and center Brad Richards have formed a formidable pair at the point.
“He’s been very good on our power play lately,” coach Marc Crawford pointed out. “I think it’s probably attributable to how many shots he’s getting, how many shots he’s getting through, the opportunity that he’s getting on the power play, on the point. I think Brad Richards is definitely the quarterback on the power play and he distributes the puck very well and I think Stephane, as well as many of the other players on the power play, is the benefactor of many good set-ups. But at the same time, when you get that opportunity, you still have to deliver with your shot and he’s done that.”
“I’ve just been fortunate to be able to go on the power play with some really good players and the power play’s doing well,” said Robidas, who also connected for three power play goals - and 11 total points - over 18 games in the 2008 playoffs. “I’m just trying to get pucks through and on net and get guys going in front that pay the price, guys like Brenden (Morrow) and (James) Neal and (Steve) Ott, they bring a man and they screen the goalie and sometimes they tip it in. I think that’s part of being successful. Playing with really good players, sometimes things open up for me, because guys respect them so much and they get room to make plays.
“I’m not trying to change anything in my game, I’m not trying to play differently. I’m just trying to be myself and trying to do what I do best and if I can chip in offensively, that’s a big bonus.”
At the same time, Robidas has not lost sight of his primary responsibility, keeping the other teams’ top players off the scoresheet. Usually paired up with 24-year-old Swede Nicklas Grossman, Robidas has been exemplary in that aspect of the game as well.
“To me, that’s my main focus, I’ll be honest with you,” Robidas said. “My main focus is trying to play well defensively. That’s where everything starts, and I think every time I go on the ice, it’s usually against the top guys and you’ve got to be aware of those guys. That’s something that I take pride in and I want to be good, and I’ve been playing with Nick Grossman and he’s the same way - we take pride in playing well defensively, being hard to play against, and if the chance is there to go offensively, then go, but I don’t want to neglect any defensive duties.”
The soft-spoken Grossman, in just his third NHL season, gives his partner a lot of credit for helping accelerate his development.
“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 Robidas. “We had great guys around here, too, like (former Dallas defenseman Mattias) Norstrom, but those guys are gone and Robi being kind of the go-to guy now, he’s been around longest on this team. 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 a great player to look up to and get help from.”
Robidas, who was Montreal’s seventh-round selection (164th overall) in the 1995 Entry Draft, took a while to develop into a top-notch defender. The Stars actually traded him to Chicago halfway through the 2003-04 season and only had another shot at signing him as a free agent prior to 2005-06 because the Black Hawks didn’t extend a qualifying offer to him and no other teams were interested in his services.
But Robidas has flourished over the last couple of seasons, thanks in part to the gradual maturation of his game, as well as the NHL’s recent rule tweaks that foster a more wide-open, skating style of play.
“I think the league’s changed a little bit and it’s favored him,” Crawford said. “There’s no question that after the work stoppage, when the new rules were introduced, they favored mobility, they favored skating defensemen and I think that coincided with him in his career, at the point where he was starting to figure a lot of things out, so those two factors played into his enhanced play in the NHL - the intelligence in his decision-making, the fact that he understands the competitiveness of the league and the rule changes allowing for mobile defensemen really becoming the model of the day.”
Almost as impressive as his play on the ice is his dedication off it. By all accounts, Robidas is one of the hardest-working guys in the room, always giving everything he’s got and leaving it all on the ice.
“I’ve been on the other side of it, watching him play for a lot of years, and whenever we played Dallas, he was one of the guys that you knew was going to have a great game,” noted first-year assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who spent the previous nine seasons as an assistant in Edmonton. “I think for me, the one thing that I’ve seen, when you’re around a guy all the time, you just see the effort that he gives every night and the compete that he’s got, even in practice. He wants to get better every game, he wants to improve night in and night out. There’s not too many guys for the size of him that compete as hard he does, that’s for sure.”
“He just seems to do whatever is necessary and he seems to do the right thing all the time,” Turco added. “It’s not always going to work out, but when you do things the way the team wants and the way smart hockey is intended to be played, then usually good things will happen. And that’s why his plus/minus is so solid, his ice time is as high as it is. It’s not just that he’s getting any old ice time, he’s getting minutes that count, against the other team’s top lines and being on the power play and on the penalty kill, and anyone that can do it all at their position is certainly somebody who’s valuable.
“We’ve known that for a long time, it just seems that more people are starting to realize it.”