When the annual list of "most underrated players in the league" makes an appearance, there are a few mainstays from the Dallas Stars. And while Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson make almost every national writer's list, they wouldn't be my first choice.
My vote would go to Stephane Robidas.
Some of it is the role - there's not much more thankless than the role the Stars have asked him to play the past few seasons. Listed at 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, Robidas doesn't have the imposing frame of the traditional shut-down defenseman. And although he is a solid puck mover, he doesn't have the rocket shot or Zubov-like passing instincts off the offensive defenseman elite.
But with no one in the Stars current defensive stable ready to ascend to that elusive No. 1 defenseman slot, Robidas has filled in more than admirably. That trend continued last season as Robidas did all you could ask and maybe a little bit more as the veteran stalwart of an extremely green defensive unit.
One of five players to hit the ice in every game (including a quick return after taking a shot to the side of the head that actually cracked his helmet), Robidas was the team's most effective defensemen in the most difficult minutes. He played the second most difficult quality of competition behind Jamie Benn and had by far the best "Corsi Rel QoC," or Corsi relative to the quality of competition faced at even strength. And he started 43.4 percent of the time at even strength in the offensive zone but finished there 49.2 percent of the time. He drove the play forward.
The more traditional statistics are favorable as well. Robidas finished tied for eighth on the team with 13 points (1 goal and 12 assists) and had a plus-2 rating with 56 penalty minutes. And he was second on the team in average time on ice per game, finishing just a smidge behind Alex Goligoski.
Beyond the numbers, there was his effect on rookie defenseman Brenden Dillon. Robidas was not only Dillon's most consistent on-ice partner as the youngster settled into his NHL role, but he also took Dillon on as a houseguest for the first two thirds of the season.
When it comes to the best defenseman on the Stars this season, it really comes down to two choices - Dillon or Robidas. And while Dillon exceeded almost everyone's wildest expectations, Robidas continued to be the most effective defenseman at pushing the play from his end of the ice to the other while facing the most difficult opponents.
That begs the question why does he get a bad rap among Stars fans at times. I think the answer to that lies in the thanklessness of his role. You generally don't want to notice defensemen unless they're throwing a big hit or making a great offensive play. Neither of those are really Robidas' strength, though he's certainly not shy about throwing the body around.
It becomes very easy to overlook the little, textbook plays made by good defensemen, such as taking the right angle on a forward or moving the puck up safely along the boards. And it's equally easy to notice when things go terribly wrong. The old idea that a forward can make one brilliant play out of 100 opportunities a night and be the hero but the defenseman can make 99 brilliant plays but is a goat for the one mistake is very true.
The real question for the Stars moving forward is how much longer can Robidas keep it up, and if he continues to be as solid as ever, does he become a tradeable commodity. He's 36 years old with one year remaining at a $3.3 million cap hit, but the Stars look like they will be rather young again at defense next year and in need of some veteran experience. He would certainly be a valuable trade acquisition to many teams, but he's probably equally valuable to the Stars at this point.
Finally, with Robidas, you always worry that he won't bounce up from a hit like he's done so often. The man has broken his nose more times than I can remember, broken teeth and helmets and been thrown awkwardly into stanchions and benches. It's extremely rare that he doesn't pop right back up, and it's equally rare that he misses a game with an injury (you have to go back to before the 2004-05 lockout to find a time he played fewer than 72 games). But as hard as he often goes down, it's still a worry.
Regardless of the worries, Robidas looks like he will remain the linchpin of the Stars defense heading into next season. And that means Stars fans can look forward to him leaving more of his heart and soul, and potentially pieces of broken protective gear, on the ice.