Commentary

If the Stars are going to rebound, one of the keys will be Robidas

Updated: December 18, 2008, 5:58 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- It was a nothing play at the end of a period. The clock was ticking down to the break, and yet there was Stephane Robidas going down to block a shot.

Between periods, the Dallas Stars' training staff numbed the inside of Robidas' mouth and stitched up the bloody part outside it, and away he went.

"I couldn't really feel anything," Robidas told ESPN.com. "I knew something was wrong. My teeth were caved in a little bit."

Still, Robidas returned during the second period and played the rest of the game, logging 25 minutes, 14 seconds in ice time and adding a power-play assist.

After the game, X-rays revealed Robidas had been playing with a broken jaw.

Less than a week later, after surgery mended the break in his chin area, Robidas was back on the ice at the Stars' practice facility Wednesday, sporting a black wire cage but raring to go.

If the cage looks familiar, it's because it's the one he wore in the playoffs last season after he suffered a broken nose in Game 5 of the Stars' first-round matchup against then-defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim. In that game, Robidas returned after his injury, his nose stuffed with cotton and cage in place, and helped the Stars defeat the Ducks. In Game 6, the series clincher, he had a goal and an assist.

"He's definitely my favorite player," fellow Stars defenseman Trevor Daley said. "There's a select few that could play that way. I was surprised he even missed any games that guy."

At the risk of invoking the name Sean Avery -- now synonymous with dressing-room pariah -- Robidas is the anti-Avery.

With Sergei Zubov expected to miss much, if not all, of the rest of the season, without captain Brenden Morrow and with the Avery debacle still fresh in people's minds, the hard-nosed defenseman's return to the Stars' lineup is a welcome tonic.

If the Stars are going to claw their way back from the Western Conference cellar and into the playoffs, it will be because a clutch of young players, especially along the blue line, step into the breach. And if they do, it will, in some respects, be because they have seen what Robidas has shown them.

"That guy is the top of the league for young guys to look up to," said Nicklas Grossman, one of a group of youngsters that played well during Dallas's surprise run to the Western Conference finals last season. "Just the way he plays, the way he brings it every night. He doesn't have to say a word. He shows it on the ice.

"You see him play, you want to do the same."

Grossman recalled the night Robidas went down with a broken jaw.

"You see that and you go, 'Whoa, that's not good.' Then you see it's No. 3 and it's Robidas, and it's OK," Grossman said.

To look at Robidas' face is to look at the face of sacrifice, the scars and abrasions, the bumpy knot of pasta that passes as a nose -- and that's even after offseason surgery to straighten out the mess to help Robidas' breathing.

"His face has seen a lot of action," Stars coach Dave Tippett said.

It is a face that only begins to tell the story of a player who has gutted it out when many would have packed it in.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound defenseman was considered undersized coming out of junior and wasn't drafted until Montreal called his name with the 164th pick in the 1995 draft. He played two full seasons with the Canadiens but spent long periods of time in the press box. "I've been a healthy scratch many times in my career," Robidas said.

He recalled a stretch of maybe 25 straight games during which he was a spectator.

Hard? Sure.

"To be honest, I've been discouraged many times," he said.

But Robidas vowed he would find a way, develop skills and a work ethic that would keep him in the league. He worked hard in practice, hoping his coaches would see he was ready.

"I started thinking, 'What can I do better, what can I bring to the table?'" Robidas said.

Atlanta claimed him in the waiver draft in 2002 and traded him to Dallas for future considerations the same day -- the exact nature of those considerations still seems to be uncertain. The Stars dealt Robidas to Chicago during the 2003-04 season, but after the lockout, he returned to Dallas.

Stars co-GM Les Jackson said there are just some players who are meant to play with an organization and Robidas seems to have found his place in Dallas. "He's one of those guys that just fits. He's played his best hockey for us by far," Jackson said.

Jackson added that Robidas is a good reminder to everyone in the organization, from scouts to management to teammates, that it's never wise to pass judgment on a player and his potential too early.

Last season, when Philippe Boucher and Zubov went down with injury, it was Robidas who answered the bell. He'd already established himself as fearless, but he also started to produce offense. Although Zubov returned for the playoffs, it was Robidas who provided the offensive spark, collecting 11 points in 18 postseason games and averaging 25:31 a night in ice time.

"You just try and embrace it and enjoy it and take advantage of it," he said.

He will be asked to do more of the same with Zubov still out of the lineup with a knee injury.

"He typifies a guy that we want to have as our identity," Tippett said. "Whether he's hurt or not hurt, he's in the most battles within a game of anybody. What he's done is transformed himself into a very intelligent player that plays well within a team game."

Former Calgary GM Craig Button said you'd have to go a long way to find a better bargain than Robidas, who makes $1.5 million this season and next.

"He's the kind of guy you'd say to yourself, 'I would like that guy on my team.' And I think his teammates feel that way," Button said. "A lot of people talk about it, but he's committed."

Some guys might wear their tolerance for pain as a badge of honor. For Robidas, it's simply part of the deal he's made with himself and his teammates.

"I'm not a better guy," he said. "I love to play the game. I have a lot of responsibility. I want to help the team win. I want to make a difference. I want to be the guy they look for; that's what I'm trying to do. That's what I'm trying to build."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.