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Stars’ defense starting to contribute more on offense

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

For so many years, Dallas Stars fans were fortunate to witness one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen, but when Sergei Zubov left the league two years ago, the club never really replaced him.

Of course, how can you replicate the contributions of such a special talent like Zubie? But instead of one truly special player, the Stars have managed to make up for his absence by receiving strong performances from a variety of sources. For example, the last two seasons, leading scorer Brad Richards has assumed the role of power play quarterback and excelled, while Stephane Robidas has evolved into the squad’s shut-down defender over that time.

As for the overall benefits of significant offensive production being generated from the defense corps, Dallas had not gotten a whole lot accomplished in that area until recently.

But as the Stars became one of the NHL’s hottest teams, soaring to the top of the Pacific Division while riding a stellar 19-7-4 record since late November, the team has also begun to receive more offense out of its stable of defensemen, particularly Trevor Daley. Certainly, the recent increase has been a much-welcomed development.

“I think it’s always important to get a little help from those guys back there and it’s always nice when you’re playing defense to help on the offensive part of it,” noted Stars assistant coach Charlie Huddy, himself a former NHL defenseman who topped 40 points six times in his 17-year career. “We’ve been working on trying to get our shots through and getting the opportunities to be involved in the offense, because there’s lots of times, if you can get a goal from the point, it can win you a hockey game, just those D getting shots through for tips and screens. Hopefully, we can keep building on it.” 

“We want to help out on the offensive end,” added Daley, whose two-goal game against Atlanta on Jan. 15 was part of a recent stretch in which he compiled three goals and seven points in eight games. “And in today’s game, in order to win, you’ve got to be able to keep pucks in and especially with our forwards, they’re so highly-skilled, they get so many shots and so many chances that off those chances, it comes around and it’s up to us to keep those pucks in and keep those plays alive, so that’s what we’ve been keying on to trying to do.” 

While the Stars still rank tied for 23rd in the30-team NHL in goals from defensemen with 14, with Daley’s five leading the way, they have been climbing the list. When Nicklas Grossman collected his first of the season in Friday night’s loss in Calgary, it marked the Stars’ fifth tally from a defenseman in a seven-game span, after going the previous 17 contests with just three.

The importance of blueline-generated offense was never more apparent than in the Stars’ 6-1 triumph on Jan. 15 over the Thrashers, who boast two of the league’s top five leading defensemen scorers in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. Facing the team that leads the league with 31 goals from the blue line, the Stars stepped up and received three goals from defensemen, including two from Daley, along with two assists from Robidas, while shutting out Atlanta’s D-men.

“It was huge, it was one of the focuses of our game,” head coach Marc Crawford said of that game. “We talked about how productive Atlanta’s defense has been this year, with Byfuglien and Enstrom and on down their list. We challenged them to really push themselves and I thought our defense really rose to the occasion. It was nice, we ended up with three goals and a number of assists from our D. Sometimes there’s those little battles within a game that strike a chord within your group and I thought as a group, they really responded.”

In addition to Daley’s recent hot streak, just about every defenseman on the squad has contributed on the scoresheet recently. Robidas has four assists in the last five contests after enduring a 10-game point drought. Grossman had recorded just one assist in a span of 17 games before compiling a goal (his first in 130 games) and three assists in the last seven, while Matt Niskanen has registered three assists in his last eight games played after going pointless in the previous 18. And Jeff Woywitka, who collected his first goal in almost two years in that Atlanta game, had recorded just one assist in 17 games before posting two points (one goal, one assist) in the next six before being forced out of the lineup with an upper body injury in Edmonton last Thursday.

Overall on the season, Robidas leads the blueline crew with 23 points (three goals, 20 assists), which ranks tied for 32nd among league defensemen, and sits tied for 24th on the list of NHL clubs’ top D-men scorers. 

One of the keys to success for getting offense out of the D-men has been their ability to get their shots in deep from the point. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy with opposing teams focusing on taking away shooting lanes.

“I think it’s tough to score from the blue line if the goalie can see it,” Huddy pointed out. “The goalies are just too good now and cover too much area, but if he’s got people in front of him or if it gets deflected, I think the important thing we try to get those guys to do is just get their shots through. Even if it gets blocked in front of the net, at least it’s there - we can get into a battle for it, but it’s the ones that get blocked 5-10 feet from the blue line, hits a shinpad and goes the other way, that something (negative) happens. You work on it, but it’s a hard thing to work on in practice because you can’t really get anybody out in that lane, you don’t want to hit your teammates. It’s just a matter of those guys, when they get in the game, having the confidence to hold it and walk the line a little bit and just get it by that first guy coming out.”

Robidas is a player who’s shined in that area, and although his offensive opportunities have diminished a bit this season - primarily because his power play time has been reduced a bit with the intent of saving him for more defensive situations - he has the skills to produce when the chances are there. Getting his shots through is important, as he’d like to get more of them on net, having totaled 56 shots on goal through 48 games after firing a career-best 199 last year.

“I’d like to get more shots on net, I don’t have a lot so far this year,” said Robidas, who led Dallas defenders with 10 goals, 31 assists and 41 points - all career highs - last season. “There’s a few areas of my game I want to be better and there’s other stuff that I’m happy with. I try to make a happy balance in trying to play an overall very good game.”

Arriving at that balance is important, because no one prefers more offensive production at the expense of defensive zone coverage. A defender who carries the puck in deep, loses it and gets caught up ice as the opposition counter-attacks with an odd-man rush is not helping the cause.

“You’d love to (have more offense from defensemen), but not at the risk of not playing well defensively,” Crawford said. “We want our defense to be great defenders, we want them to be guys that have good gap, that turn and play defensively really well, that get the puck out of our end, and anything they can do to supplement our offense, by keeping plays alive, those are the important things. But we don’t want them to focus on the offensive slant of the game at the demise of our strong defensive showing.”

But when the Stars can get some offensive contributions from some guys who are not usually expected to score, whether it’s the fourth-line forwards or the defensemen, it’s definitely a bonus.

“I think we’ve always given the D the free reign to be able to come in and get involved,” Huddy said. “It also depends on the time of the game, too - last minute of the period, probably not, if we’re up by one or something, but if you get down by one or two, then you want them to get in there and cause some havoc. We’ve always encouraged them to get involved, and we need that. It’s good to have that element in our game.”

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