The Dallas Stars have never had a finalist for rookie of the year before this season.
In fact, the last time the franchise had a rookie voted in the top three was in 1990 when Mike Modano of the Minnesota North Stars finished as runner-up to Sergei Makarov. That was 31 years ago.
So, the fact that Jason Robertson is a finalist this season is significant. Even more important is the fact that Robertson has earned that distinction because of a season of development that, in retrospect, was amazing.
Robertson was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the season after a training camp in which he didn't really distinguish himself. The 21-year-old winger was among a large group of young players who the Stars were hoping would step up in the shortened 2020-21 season. He'd been a standout in the AHL and was a member of the traveling group that went to the Edmonton playoff bubble last season. He was dripping with potential and talent and hockey smarts, so he was earmarked for just a little bit of glory.
But he struggled to start.
Robertson played the first two games and then was a healthy scratch for five. He returned to the lineup in the same game where Alexander Radulov was hurt, and that created an opening. With Tyler Seguin already sidelined and Radulov now out, the Stars needed top-six forwards. Robertson had an opportunity and he embraced it.
"He wasn't great in training camp, and he knew it, and he really did a good job on working on his weaknesses, and he changed the player he was," said Stars coach Rick Bowness. "I think one of his biggest strengths is how hard he works and how he learns from his mistakes. You look at where he is now, and he's got to be the most improved player in the league."
Robertson started to make an immediate impact on the scoresheet, tallying two goals and four assists for six points in five games. That earned him extra minutes with top players and before long, he was a fixture on a line with Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski. By the end of the season, Robertson had tallied 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points in 51 games. He led all NHL rookies in assists and plus-minus (plus-13) and was second in points and goals. His 0.88 points per game in a shortened season is not far behind Modano's 0.93 in 1989-90 (75 points in 80 games).
Just as important, he kept getting better. He was a fierce battler for puck possession, he was a smart player in anticipating movement and breaking up passes, he was sapient in finding ways to get open around the net.
"He's got great hockey sense, and he really used that to help read the game, and then he's just really a competitor," Bowness said. "He stuck his nose in there and won a lot of battles."
Bowness said the coaches asked Robertson for more, and he gave it to them.
"You push the buttons, and he responded very well," Bowness said. "You can push him hard, and he responds. Some guys you can't, but he definitely likes it. He has mental toughness. As well as all his physical skills, he has mental toughness."
While it would've been nice to get Robertson some playoff games, the Stars missed out this season. Still, Robertson, goalie Jake Oettinger and defenseman Ryan Shea went to the IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia and helped Team USA take a bronze medal. Robertson finished with nine points (four goals, five assists) in 10 games at the tournament and clearly looked comfortable being one of his team's leading players.
That should be important heading into a summer of training and a return to a regular camp setup next fall. Robertson said at the end of his rookie year that he now knows what he needs to be a better NHL player.
"Last summer was a good step in trying to get into the NHL," Robertson said. "But this coming summer, being an actual NHL pro, I'm just going to keep taking it to the next level and take the next step because now I know what I need to work on and improve upon."
Of course, there also is that matter of deciding the rookie of the year. The three finalists for the Calder Trophy are Robertson, Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov and Carolina's Alex Nedeljkovic, with the winner expected to be announced during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And while the pandemic has created a strange scenario for delivering the award, just being in the top three has to be seen as a huge accomplishment for Robertson.
It's something no other Stars rookie has done. And when you look at a list that includes the likes of Jamie Benn, Brenden Morrow, James Neal, Jussi Jokinen, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, that's a pretty impressive accomplishment.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.