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Under The Radar: Skrastins delivering solid defensive play

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

When defenseman Karlis Skrastins scored two goals and an assist - including the game-winner - to help the Dallas Stars defeat the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 on Dec. 19, casual hockey fans in the Metroplex may have wondered, ‘Who was that?’

But those who follow the team closely already knew that Skrastins, one of the only NHLers from the small Eastern European nation of Latvia, has been a solid defensive presence all season. 

Skrastins may have just reached the scoresheet for the first time this season, but the 35-year-old veteran of 11 seasons has been a valuable member and stabilizing influence on the young Dallas defense corps since signing as a free agent last July. 

“Nothing will change in my game after (that) game, still my biggest job is to be good defensively and to be good in our defensive zone,” said Skrastins, who had gone the previous 17 games without a point and hadn’t found the back of the net since last Feb. 5, a span of 63 games, when he was still a member of the Florida Panthers. “But of course, our coaches say when we have a chance to help forwards out, to get in a rush or get up ice to get a shot, then we’ve got to do it. That game was one of those games when my shot was going in.”

“We saw him score a couple of goals, which was nice,” noted Stars first-year coach Marc Crawford. “I think it always gives a boost to your club when guys that don’t score quite regularly come out and have a great offensive night. But let’s not kid ourselves, we know what he’s here for - he’s here to defend well, to play against top guys for the other team, to kill penalties, to play solid in the defensive zone.”

He certainly won’t be mistaken for former Star defenseman Sergei Zubov. His two goals on Dec. 19 gave Skrastins 29 for his career in 715 games, while his game-winner was just the seventh of his career. Through 39 games this season, Skrastins has six assists to go along with his two goals, and has registered just 24 shots.  

But as Crawford pointed out, offense is not what Skrastins is expected to contribute. The one word almost everyone uses to describe him is ‘competitor,’ a reputation Skrastins has earned over the years by putting his best effort on the ice every night. The fact that Skrastins has ranked among the league’s top 10 in blocked shots in three of the past four seasons (with the only exception being 2007-08, when he missed 22 games due to injuries), and currently sits behind Stephane Robidas on the squad with 89 (good for tenth in the NHL), further demonstrates his commitment and willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. 

And the fact that Skrastins owns the league record Iron Man streak for defensemen after suiting up for 495 consecutive games between Feb. 2000 and Feb. 2007 shows that he will play through pain and knows the right way to get in front of a speeding puck.

“He’s a fierce competitor, he plays hard every night,” said fellow defenseman Stephane Robidas, who knows a thing or two about giving his all every night and is right ahead of Skrastins with 92 blocked shots. “That’s the identity we want to have and that’s exactly how he plays. He plays hard, battles hard, never gives up on any play, he’s willing to block shots any way, hard slap shots, it doesn’t matter for him. He battles hard and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this guy. He wants to win and he’s willing to do anything to help the team win, and that’s good when you see a guy like that, willing to sacrifice his body for the team.”

“He’s such a competitor,” adds Crawford. “Everybody needs their players to compete and compete doesn’t just mean going out and knocking people on their keisters, it means making sure that they battle in tough games, that you don’t change your game when the game gets intense and tough, that you’re accepting the challenge, that you’re enjoying the challenge, that you’re embracing the physicality that happens in games. Karlis, I think, exemplifies that as much as anybody on our club. 

“He just has a great ability to get in the way. He’s one of the league leaders in blocked shots, which means his positioning is so good, he’s brave enough to do those sorts of things. He’s certainly a battler and that competitiveness is certainly infectious to the rest of the group.”

As for his uncanny ability to stop opposing shots before they reach the goaltenders, Skrastins insists he doesn’t do anything special, but there is a strategy to it.

“It’s not like I’m really thinking a lot about it, it kind of goes automatically,” said Skrastins, who also ranks third on the Stars in ice time, averaging 20:15 per game. “It’s not like I’m trying to block every shot but if there is the possibility to block it, I will do it. You can’t go down all the time, because you are losing your positioning. You have to read it by the game.”

His seamless integration into the Stars’ blue line was impressive, quickly fitting in as the new guy but also a respected veteran, learning a new system along with the rest of the holdovers due to the off-season coaching change.

“In the beginning, you need some time to learn a lot of things, because it’s a different system from how I played last year in Florida,” said Skrastins, who played five years in Nashville after becoming the Predators’ ninth-round selection (230th overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. “A new team, new partners, but it happened so quick. I think the whole team was learning a new system, so it kind of made it easier. For me, I played most of the time with (Trevor) Daley, and we kind of understood each other from the beginning.”

“He’s fit in really good,” said third-year defender Matt Niskanen, 23. “He’s been real solid back there for us. He’s one of the hardest competitors we got, excellent defensively, and as you see, he’s got some sneaky offensive instincts. So he’s a pretty complete player and a great teammate. He does his role really, really well and he brings his ‘A game’ every night and he’s a true competitor.”

Skrastins will bring that all-out, do-anything-to-win mentality to the biggest hockey stage of all, the Winter Olympics in February, when he’ll take the ice for Latvia as his country’s top defenseman. It will Skrastins’ third Olympic tournament, having also played in Salt Lake City in 2002 and in Turin in 2006, and he hopes his underdog nation has the chance to pull off an upset or two.

“Of course, I’m very excited about that, especially for our country, it’s a big tournament,” said Skrastins, who has recorded 14 goals and 25 points in 39 career contests in the World Championships for Latvia to go along with his one assist in six Olympic outings. “To be there is a big honor for me, to play for your country, I’m waiting for that. I hope we’ll do some surprises there. You never know. For us, there’s nothing to lose there, we’ll just go there and try to play our best game.” 

That’s something that die-hard Stars fans have seen from Skrastins all season, even if he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet very often.

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