Blueliner helps anchor Stars’ defensive resurgence
Friday, 03.18.2011 / 5:00 PM / News
By John Tranchina
He’s probably one of the Dallas Stars’ most indispensible players, and yet defenseman Nicklas Grossman is also one of the most anonymous.
But for the 26-year-old Grossman, in his fourth full NHL season, this year has marked yet another step forward in his evolution into one of the league’s better shutdown defenders, and there’s no question his contributions are greatly appreciated by the guys sitting beside him in the dressing room.
“He’s one of those guys that have taken a big leap forward,” noted Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen. “It’s maybe tougher for guys outside the locker room to see it, when you’re a defenseman and you’re not always on the scoresheet - especially for me as a goalie, I see it every shift, he makes the right little plays. That’s a big key. He’s in the right place and he’s become very good, and I’m excited to see how much better he can get. He’s a huge part of our defense.”
Grossman has been a significant factor, even if he doesn’t attract a lot of attention.
“He’s been great since I’ve been playing with him,” said Stephane Robidas, who has been primarily paired with Grossman over the last two-plus seasons. “He’s an easy guy to play with. He had a great year last year, too - even though we didn’t make the playoffs, I thought he played real well. He does all the little things right and a lot of times, it goes unnoticed and he does those things night-in, night-out. And I bet if you ask the opponents if they like to play against him, a lot of guys would say they don’t like it. He’s been really effective.”
The soft-spoken Grossman not only embraces his role, he seems energized by the responsibility of trying to shut down other teams’ top offensive lines, both in 5-on-5 situations and on the penalty kill.
“It’s maybe not the thing that you see in the newspapers every day, but it’s a job that has to be done,” said Grossman, who was the Stars’ second-round selection (56th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “I love my job. I take a lot of pride in it and I know Robi does too. It’s great going out there every night and trying to have a big challenge ahead of you, trying to shut the other teams’ big lines down. For me, it keeps me on top of things, always be prepared, and try to play hard and simple.”
Grossman’s performance has helped the Stars’ dramatic improvement defensively, a much-needed development after they surrendered 254 goals last season, which was 13th in the Western Conference and a big reason they missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
Clearly, the experience Grossman earned while being thrust into a prime role over the past two seasons has helped accelerate his development to where now, as he continues to refine his game, he is much more equal to the task.
“He’s more comfortable now being in that top pair, playing against top guys,” coach Marc Crawford said. “He’s really shown a great progression this year in being able to play against top people throughout the league, so we’ve been really pleased with Nick. He’s a big guy, he makes a great first pass, he’s got great mobility, takes people out with authority. He can play against tough good players, he can play against skilled good players, and those are great elements to have as a top defensive pairing.
“I think he played a lot of those situations the last couple of years maybe when he wasn’t 100 percent ready for it, and we’re reaping the benefits now of him having played so much earlier in his career.”
Grossman has developed strong chemistry with Robidas, and he couldn’t have a better mentor to help him raise his game to the next level.
“We’ve played together for awhile and we really know each other out on the ice, we don’t really have to talk much,” Grossman said of his veteran partner. “He’s been great. He’s a huge part of this team and a solid piece of the D corps, because he’s just a great role model for us other guys to look up to. He’s doing the right things all the time, on and off the ice, and I think it’s great to have a guy like that on our team. It’s been awesome to play with the guy and I just hope we’re going to keep doing that for a long time.”
Grossman knows his area of expertise, and he takes great pride in the club’s much tighter defensive performance this year, although he also passes some praise along to goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft.
“When you play defense, if two guys don’t do their job, it’s not going to work,” Grossman explained. “You need all five guys and on the penalty kill, all the four guys plus the goalie of course, and they’ve done a great job, Razor and Kari all season, helping us out and we try to help them out, letting them see the puck. Just try to battle hard and try to stay tight in your own zone, that’s the big key. You just got to try to outwork the other guys. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-on-5 or on the PK, if you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to defend well.”
Despite his tendency to blend into the background, there’s no question Grossman has done just that.