I've said it before and will say it again - there's not a guy on the Dallas Stars roster with a more thankless job than Stephane Robidas.
The veteran defenseman is the epitome of steady but not spectacular - a guy who tends to play better than the sum of his parts would indicate. With all due respect to Robidas, who has played 847 more NHL games than I have ever even dreamed of, he is not particularly spectacular at any one part of the game. He's not overly fast or physical, he doesn't have a rocket shot or a huge hip check, and his best games come when people don't notice him.
Despite all of that, he has been arguably the most important pieces of the Dallas Stars defense over the past several seasons.
You can argue that some of that is because the Stars have not been able to address the glaring need for a real top-tier defenseman, and I think even the team would agree with you. But whatever the reason, Robidas has been the one to step up to the task time and time again.
As I wrote in my end of season review article on him:
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.
There's no question what value Robidas has brought to the team in recent seasons. It's ridiculously difficult to find even competent defensemen at the NHL level - that's why the elite ones command so much money. At a $3.3 million cap hit, Robidas is a steal.
But what will his role be as the team moves forward, particularly with a young crop of defensemen on the way up the system? And how does the addition of Sergei Gonchar effect Robidas' role?
To the Gonchar question, I suspect they will be used in very different roles. The Stars likely want to use Gonchar as a true offensive defensemen, allowing his skating and hockey sense to create plays from the blueline that have been missing for far too long. Robidas, though used on the power play for lack of other options at times, has never been a player the team really tapped for that. Yes, he drives the play forward, but through solid defense and moving the puck out of his zone rather than trying to actively create offense up ice.
I suspect, though I haven't seen any preseason games in person so it's just an educated guess at this point, that the Stars will deploy Gonchar in relatively favorable situations on the ice - offensive zone draws or weaker matchups - to maximize his offensive value. Those have never been the situations where Robidas and his partner rolled onto the ice. Gonchar will provide a nice break for Robidas on the power play, but I doubt he will be the player eating the defensive load.
If Robidas is going to get help dealing with the tough minutes in his own end, it will have to come from a young player developing. Brenden Dillon was Robidas partner (and houseguest) for long stretches of the lockout-shortened season, and the two have played together in the preseason yet again. This is the obvious starting point for a "shut-down" pair if Lindy Ruff decides to go with one. Trevor Daley and Aaron Rome are both hurt, and Jordie Benn, Jamie Oleksiak and likely Kevin Connauton are just not ready for facing the best forwards the NHL has to offer as of yet.
The in-season progression of players like Oleksiak, Connauton and even someone like Patrik Nemeth will really dictate Robidas' role as the season goes on. Dillon may have made the jump immediately, but he is the huge exception to the rule. Most defensemen take a slow but steady path to becoming NHL ready (this is especially true for the big bodies - Zdeno Chara didn't turn into the beast that he's become until well into his NHL career), and the last thing the Stars want to do is damage their confidence by putting them in over their heads.
Robidas, 36, is on the last year of his contract and has a very affordable $3.3 million cap hit ($2.8 million actual salary), which could make him a hot commodity at the trade deadline should the Stars decide to sell. That's especially true if one of the youngsters takes a big step forward and starts to take on some of his harder minutes.
But for the time being, Robidas will likely continue to fill the same role as he has the past several years, taking the tough minutes in his own end and playing in the situations where the Stars can least afford to give up a goal. At this point of his career, he's not likely to contribute any more than he has over the past few seasons, but frankly, you can't ask much more than what he's done thus far.