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Why Jason Robertson Could be the Next Face of American Hockey

Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

Almost 30 years ago, the Dallas Stars took to the ice for the very first time, defeating the Detroit Red Wings 6-4 in Reunion Arena in front of a sellout crowd. The first goal came from Neal Broten, who was already a franchise legend with the Minnesota North Stars and whose jersey now hangs in the American Airlines Center.

The second goal came courtesy of the new face of the franchise: 23 year old Mike
Modano. It was his only point scored of the night, but Modano would go on to score 92 more over his next 75 games. Those 93 points matched his career best from the previous season, the last year the franchise was in Minnesota. Injuries derailed his second season in Dallas, and Modano never scored more than 85
for the remainder of his career. But he nevertheless set the NHL record for most points scored by an American-born player, finishing his career with 1,374 points across 1,499 games, nearly all of them for the (North) Stars franchise.

Those 93 points weren’t just (tied for) a career high for Modano, however. For 28
seasons, that record has stood as the most points scored by a Dallas Stars in a single season. Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15, but his career high was only 89 in 2015-16. Brad Richards has been the closest with his 2009-20 season, but he was two points shy with four extra games played. No one has been able to surpass the greatest player in Dallas Stars history.

Until now.

Tonight, Jason Robertson has a chance to break Modano’s record if he scores at least 3 points against the Arizona Coyotes. Like Modano was in 1994, he is only 23 years old. Like Modano, he won’t require a full season to do so, tonight being his 75th.

And like Mike Modano, Jason Robertson is an American.

It’s nowhere near the record for most points by an American in a single season —
Johnny Gaudreau scored 115 last year and was still 35 points behind Pat Lafontaine’s 1992-93 record. But when you consider the similarities between Robertson’s season and Modano’s, it’s hard not to view it as not only his ascent into Dallas Stars lore, but American hockey lore as well.

When Mike Modano retired in 2011, there was no doubt as to who the new face of
American hockey was. That would be 22 year old Patrick Kane, who the previous
season had helped the Chicago Blackhawks snap a 49-season Stanley Cup drought
with a team-leading 88 points in the regular season and 28 points in the playoffs, one behind Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews. He was also a key contributor for the US Olympic Hockey team in the 2010 games, which saw the US lose only one game — the Gold Medal match against Canada.

Though it took awhile — in part due to injuries — Kane eclipsed that total four times, winning the Art Ross and Hart Trophies in 2015-16 along with two more Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy. As of today, he sits at 1,234 career points in 1,175 games, only 142 short of Modano in 264 less games. At 34 years old, there’s a good chance he breaks Modano’s record if he is able to play another three or four seasons.

But while the points kept coming, other areas of the star forward’s game have declined.

He’s also caught the injury bug for the past several seasons, holding back his career
totals. Like Modano before him, Kane will soon have to pass along the unofficial title of being the most notable American hockey player. The question, then, is who? The clear cut choice seems to be Auston Matthews, who has had an even better start to his career than Kane in terms of individual accomplishments. But there are a few issues with Matthews when it comes to how he is viewed by NHL fans and the general public.

For starters, Matthews has had off-ice issues, namely his disorderly conduct charges back in 2019, right before the NHL season. Granted, Kane also had legal issues early in his career — everyone’s heard of the cab driver story — and that didn’t stop him. But it’s still a black spot on his legacy, and a reason why many hockey fans are not a fan of Kane. Optics are important — there’s a reason why the universally beloved Joe Pavelski is the player who holds the title “Captain America.”

But by far the most limiting factor for Matthews is the team he plays for, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for a myriad of issues. For starters, unlike the Blackhawks, the Maple Leafs have not had much postseason success. Across his first eight seasons, Kane had already won three Stanley Cups. Currently in his seventh season, Matthews has yet to make it past the second round.

But even if Matthews did see postseason success, would it matter? Kane winning with Chicago was huge because it kicked off a dynasty for a major US city after a half-a-century-long Stanley Cup drought. If Matthews won the Stanley Cup this season, it would be for a Canadian team. And not just any Canadian team: one of the most despised and ridiculed teams in the entire NHL, mostly because everyone is sick of all the media attention they get.

Now, that can all be cancelled out on the international stage — if Matthews was to, say, deliver a Gold Medal to the United States with a dominant performance, he would become an “American hero” regardless of the team he plays for. Problem is, the NHL hasn’t gone to the Winter Olympics since 2014, and there’s only been one true “best on best” hockey tournament since then: the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. And yes, Matthews did play in that without a single NHL game under his belt… as a member of Team North America, not Team USA.

So yes, Matthews has clearly been one of the best players in the NHL (American or
otherwise) since he debuted in 2016. But when it comes to being the new “face” of US hockey, his unique situation has held him back. Which means for all intents and purposes, that title is still very much up for grabs.

Enter Jason Robertson.

When comparing the first three seasons of Modano, Kane, Matthews, and Robertson, only the latter has scored at a rate higher than a point per game, despite playing in a low-scoring offense for his first two seasons. He is not primarily a goal scorer like Matthews, yet he has already posted back-to-back 40+ goal seasons. He may not be the prettiest skater, but he is nevertheless dazzling to watch on the ice, and has made highlight reel after highlight reel.

But it’s not just his point totals — unlike Kane and Matthews, Robertson has had zero off-ice issues, whether it be legal issues or just bad optics. And while he has his fair share of penalties, he hasn’t had any hearings with the Department of Player Safety (and by extension hasn’t been suspended or fined). You can’t say the same about Matthews, or some of the other young American superstars in the league such as Matthew Tkachuk.

He’s also very personable in interviews or off ice discussions. He says the right things, and is very relatable to his audience. He also happens to be one of the NHL’s few players of Asian descent (Robertson was only the second Filipino American in NHL history), which makes him a broad appeal for minority fans. And oh yeah, he plays for a team in one of the most populous states in the US, a southern market which continues to demonstrate tremendous growth in hockey.

It’s been said for years that if the NHL marketing department had any sense about them that they would start heavily marketing their individual stars, just like the other major North American sports. And for the past year or so, myself and others have argued that Robertson should be at the forefront of that initiative. He is everything the NHL wants in a star, and appeals to a wide variety of demographics that the NHL wants to tap into (youth, minorities, Asia, southern US, etc.). He should be getting interviewed every time the Stars are on a national broadcast, and the NHL should practically be begging EA Sports to put him on the cover of their next NHL game.

But, like I said, the NHL marketing department has no sense. But he has the opportunity to succeed despite that. Whereas the Maple Leafs will be in the meat-grinder called the Atlantic Division come playoff time, Dallas has a good chance at a deep run, especially if they win the division. Barring an injury, Robertson would likely be leading that charge, alongside Roope Hintz and fellow American Joe Pavelski as one of the best lines in hockey. If they managed to go the distance and win the Stanley Cup, Robertson might very well win the Conn Smythe, putting him ahead of where Kane was at the same point in his own career.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. Things get way too messy when trying to play the “what if?” game — the NHL is simply too unpredictable.
But something you can probably etch in stone? The next time we have a best-on-best hockey tournament, whether it be a 2025 World Cup of Hockey or the 2026 Winter Olympics, Robertson should be one of the stars for Team USA. More likely than not, he’ll be a top line winger, centered by none other than Auston Matthews. That’s right: in Matthews first international game for Team USA since juniors, his chance to finally stake his claim as the face of American hockey, Robertson will be right there alongside him, in prime position to steal his thunder.

There’s a lot that can happen in the next several years. Maybe Robertson regresses.
Perhaps Matthews leaves Toronto in Free Agency and helps his new American team to a Stanley Cup. Patrick Kane might have a renaissance in New York or elsewhere akin to his last season in Chicago, staying at the forefront of the NHL for a few more years.

But make no mistake about it — when it comes to the “face” of American hockey, Jason Robertson is right there at the forefront. There’s a good chance several years from now that most casual sports fans know the name Jason Robertson, even if they don’t pay much attention to hockey. Dallas being a smaller hockey market might work against him, but Mike Modano managed to stay in the limelight after the team left Minnesota.

Why can’t Jason Robertson?