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Robidas looking to lead defense back to playoffs

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

As the leader of the Dallas Stars’ defense corps, Stephane Robidas had a tough time swallowing the fact that the club’s goals-against ranked 13th out of 15 Western Conference squads last year and that many consider the team’s defensemen one of the weak spots that led to Dallas missing the playoffs for the second straight season in 2009-10. 

At 33 years old, Robidas has really come into his own the past two years as the Stars’ top blueliner, but it’s been a bittersweet rise to prominence because the club has failed to qualify for the post-season in both. 

VIDEO: Robidas Highlights
Robidas, entering the first of a new four-year contract extension worth $13.2 million (for an annual salary cap hit of $3.3 million) signed last October, has blossomed into the Stars’ top D-man at both ends of the ice. Last season, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound native of Sherbrooke, Quebec led the Stars in ice time, averaging 24:29 per contest, and recorded career-highs with 10 goals, 31 assists and 41 points, with all figures leading Dallas defenders. 

Besides his offensive contributions, the gritty Robidas, while not necessarily big in stature, also displayed his toughness by topping the squad in hits with 269, ranking fourth in the entire NHL, while also registering a team-high 177 blocked shots, to finish seventh in the league. 

But the only numbers that really mattered to him were the ones that reflected the Stars’ troubles last year - 254 goals against, 27th in the NHL in penalty killing, and most importantly, 12th in the Western Conference.

“We weren’t good enough and I’m part of it,” Robidas said bluntly. “I’ve played on every PK, and (the penalty killing struggles were) really disappointing for me, I take it really personally, because every time I go out there, I want to kill it. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job as a team, and I take full responsibility for it, because I’ve been on it every game. I don’t know what it was.”

And of course, being outside the post-season was most difficult of all to take for the 10-year veteran.

“It’s never fun,” said Robidas, who elevated his game to impressive heights during the Stars’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2008, when he notched three goals and 11 points in 18 playoff games, including the primary assist on Brenden Morrow’s series-clinching quadruple-overtime goal that won Game 6 of the Conference Semi-Finals over San Jose. “It’s pretty painful, because to me, that’s the best time of the year. That’s the time when everybody wants to play, and I think for us, it’s a wake-up call. Two years in a row - we’ve got to learn from those two seasons. Obviously, it’s very disappointing, but hopefully we’ve learned a lot this year and last year, and we’ve got to move on.”

Some Stars observers have suggested that Robidas being relied upon as their number one defenseman was a role a bit beyond his abilities, and after last season, General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk indicated the club would seek out some high-level help on the blueline. That hasn’t happened yet but coach Marc Crawford is not concerned, believing Robidas fulfilled those responsibilities admirably for much of the season.

“We probably ask Stephane Robidas to do too much,” Nieuwendyk said immediately following the regular season. “We really do. He’s a quality guy, quality person and he gives you everything he’s got each and every night. He has been a rock for this team on the blueline and is a key member of our leadership group. We certainly would like to look to help to bolster our blueline.”

“Truthfully, through the first half of the year, he would have been the number one defenseman on almost every team,” Crawford suggested. “He didn’t produce as much on the power play in the second half of the season - he had 10 goals in the first half and I think he none from that point on. A lot of it is opportunity and he did have that earlier in the year.”

Crawford is right about Robidas perhaps wearing down a bit under the heavy workload as the season wore on, and those were hard minutes, in every difficult situation imaginable. Over the final 42 games of the season, he produced no goals and 14 assists, compared to 10 goals and 17 assists in the first 40. 

But Robidas himself welcomes the additional pressure and responsibility that comes with such an important position and eagerly looks forward to doing it again in 2010-11.

“To me, that’s something as a player, you want to get that challenge. I want to have that,” said Robidas, who has come a long way from his days as a healthy scratch in 2005-06, when he was even moved up to forward on occasion. “That’s something that I enjoy doing, and obviously when you come up short like that, it’s disappointing, and I take it personal. Like I said, the PK wasn’t good enough, and I was a big part of the PK. I was there every night. It’s tough. I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror, and what I did wrong, and what I can do better, and try to improve my game, and be a better player and a better teammate for this team.”

While Robidas demonstrates his impressive leadership by accepting accountability for some of the Stars’ trouble areas, he also acts as a role model for the club’s stable of younger defensemen, including his partner for much of last season, Nicklas Grossman. With Robidas’ guidance and constant presence by his side, Grossman grew into an important defensive contributor.

“We always try to practice hard together, lots of talking - I think that helps out in the long run, you get good chemistry and try to help each other out,” said the 25-year-old Grossman, about to enter his fourth full NHL season. “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. He’s been great, on and off the ice. 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.”

Robidas also proved his toughness by fighting through several nagging injuries throughout the season, including a facial fracture that had him wearing a full face shield for awhile, but he never missed a game all year. Over the last few weeks of the season, he suffered from shoulder, hip and groin issues and ended  up having to undergo surgery to repair the labrum in his shoulder back in late April, an ailment that forced him to decline an offer to play for Team Canada at the World Championships in May. But he will be ready to go by the time training camp starts in September.

“The last couple of weeks, it was sore a little bit, but it’s part of the game,” shrugged Robidas, who was originally a seventh-round selection (164th overall) of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. “Obviously, I would have loved to be able to play in it. I’ve been part of two teams that went over there and it’s always nice to get a chance to represent your country, but I’m starting to focus on next year. We need a strong start next year and we don’t want to have a third season without playoffs.”

Robidas believes that even though the Stars didn’t make any personnel changes to the defensive unit, they can still be successful in 2010-11 with just a little more consistency.

“I think we’ve showed that we can play good defense,” Robidas said of last season. “If you look at some games we played, we were unbelievable. We played really tight defensively, and we played really good. At times we were awful. It all comes back to consistency, within games and with the details. To me, if you’re not willing to have the work ethic, and you’re not doing the little things... 

“Defense is pretty simple. It’s winning the one-on-one battles and being in good position, and if you don’t do that as a team, it’s hard to win games. That’s what this team has always been known for, being a really good defensive team. Obviously, with the forwards that we’ve got, we’ve got a lot of scoring. We’ve got guys that can put the puck in the net, so that’s not really an issue. I think for us, if we play good defense, we’ve got enough power to win games.”

So despite the disappointing ending to the past two years in Dallas, Robidas remains confident that the Stars can rebound and make it back to the playoffs.

“I think if you look around the room, there’s a lot of good, young players in here, and we’ve got a lot of guys back for next year under contract,” Robidas said. “We’re not far. To me, everything looks positive for the future.”

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