Jim Nill knew this was a possibility when he traded Stephane Robidas back at the deadline.
After all, the Dallas Stars were in playoff position at that point too, before falling out following a brief tailspin then clawing their way back into the picture with a late push. And the opponent that loomed large near the top of the Western Conference at the time was indeed those same Anaheim Ducks.
So when the Ducks and a second, top-tier team called to inquire if the injured Robidas was available, Nill knew they could be seeing him again shortly. He even admitted it at the time.
"You take that into consideration, but the move was designed to give Stephane a chance to get on a good team, and this was the best option," Nill said. "I could have traded him to the East, but more to a fringe team and not a top contender."'
The return, a fourth-round pick (conditional third-round if the Ducks make the conference finals), was mostly a perfunctory piece. The Stars could have received more in return - reportedly other teams were less than pleased when they saw the move, knowing they would have offered more if Dallas had actually shopped Robidas around.
And now what first seemed inevitable then dishearteningly out of reach has become inevitable again. The Stars will meet their long-time defensive stalwart in the first round of the playoffs after his incredibly impressive return from a nasty broken leg.
There's not a lot of data out there about how the Ducks are really using Robidas over 14 games, though the short story is he's a penalty killing stalwart and has good possession numbers while playing about 21 minutes per night. He's also getting a slight majority of starts in the offensive zone, a big change from how he was used the last few years with Dallas, though almost the same as the Stars were using him this season before the injury.
There have only been a few quotes from Robidas on the series itself, including this from after the Ducks regular season finale.
"I have a lot of friends [in Dallas], a lot of good teammates," Robidas said. "There's guys that stayed at [my] house last year and this year. But it's a game and it's playoffs and I want to win. They want to win. At one point you put the friendship aside. Once the series is over, we'll be friends again. That's the way I see it."
"I've played against good friends before and whenever I'm on the ice, you put aside friendship. I really want to win a Stanley Cup. That's my goal and they're standing in our way right now."
That's all very fair, very true and not likely to end up on a bulletin board, which makes it the perfect hockey quote.
Playing against Robidas will be a new and likely unpleasant experience for the Stars. After all, they more than anyone else know exactly how hard-nosed he is and how difficult he can make life on the other team's best forwards.
While he hasn't exactly been used as a true defensive defenseman by the Ducks, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to see Anaheim try and match him up against the Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Valeri Nichushkin line to try and take advantage of the fact that he knows their tendencies.
How much will that factor in? It's hard to say. Robidas played essentially two months of the season with Dallas before breaking his leg against the Chicago Blackhawks but wasn't around, at least on the ice, when the team really got rolling in December and February. He knows this version of the Stars better than any skater out there in the NHL but still only had two on-ice months under coach Lindy Ruff (and two on-ice months with Tyler Seguin, probably the most dynamic part of the Stars offense).
And the Stars, for better or worse, have a fairly loose definition of system this year. Their offensive game relies heavily on speed, transition and in-game reads rather than looking for specific cycles. Their defensive system is more structured, but I'm not sure it's enough of a mystery that any thoughts Robidas had on potential areas to exploit are unknown to teams with video scouting.
The biggest individual impact he might have is, should he chose, his ability to disclose individual weaknesses among Stars defensemen. And that, in fact, is what the Ducks coaching staff is banking on.
BB on Stars info from Robidas: "We'll use some of the little tidbits that he gave us. There's things he would know about individuals."— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) April 14, 2014
However, one would think those tidbits also readily known via video scouting - to a trained eye, knowing which defenseman prefers to move the puck to which side is pretty evident, as is knowing who the stronger or weaker individual players are. Robidas might know some interesting tactical things - or he might know that Jordie Benn's magical hockey powers come straight from his beard - but there are few true secrets, even about individual players.
Depending on how much of an optimist you are, this is a win-win or a lose-lose scenario for most Stars fans. On the one hand, Robidas is probably the former player who has the most fan support when it comes to "guys they hope can win a Cup even with another organization." On the other, now he's in the direct path of the Stars.
It will definitely be weird, especially since the Stars haven't played the Ducks since the trade, which means none of the Stars fans have gotten a true reintroduction to Robidas as a member of the opposition. And it adds an undercurrent to an already interesting matchup.