SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Forty-five minutes after the rest of the Coyotes’ healthy players had left the ice at Thursday’s morning skate at the Ice Den, defenseman Nicklas Grossman was still on the sheet alongside rehabbing center Boyd Gordon, firing pucks at rehabbing goaltender Mike Smith.
When Smith, Gordon and goalie coach Jon Elkin left the ice, Grossmann moved on to the next phase of his workouts: sprints and circles for another 20 minutes. Once in a while, when the burn temporarily paralyzed his legs, he’d pause, bend over and let out a scream that echoed through the empty rink.
“It’s almost like therapy, being out there by yourself,” he said. “Just working hard puts you in a zone where you’re pushing yourself and you don’t really think at all.”
If he allowed them into his mind, Grossmann would have a lot of distractions to contemplate. He was a healthy scratch for the fourth time in the last seven games when the Coyotes hosted Grossman’s first NHL team, the Dallas Stars, on Thursday night at Gila River Arena. As an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, he has been the subject of trade rumors (he has a modified no-trade clause) as the NHL’s Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. And with no contract after this season, the nine-plus-year veteran has no idea what the future has in store for him.
“I love it here with this organization, this team and this city; I would love to stay,” Grossmann said. “But I don’t focus on things like that. It’s like not playing. I won’t waste energy on it because I don’t have time for it and I can’t control it.”
The mainstream analytics community loves to hate Grossmann. They look at his poor shot suppression numbers. They look at his inability to move the puck and drive possession.
It’s an argument coach Dave Tippett knows he will never win. He’s not about to reveal the process that he and assistant GM for analytics John Chayka use, even if they tell a different story than the mainstream numbers such as Corsi and Fenwick which Tippett infamously calls “Corski” and “Fenski” — and which he labels, “brutal measurements.”
“John Chayka spends six hours after a game going through the film to compile our numbers,” Tippett said. “I have a really good idea what Nick is doing. You factor in those numbers and then you also factor the roles and situations you want players to play in.
“People can say whatever they want about shots and numbers. If the game was just about numbers it would be easy to make decisions. It’s not that easy.”
Despite the recent scratches, Tippett insists that Grossmann has been everything he wanted when he pushed so hard to acquire him this summer (and unsuccessfully the season before that).
“Look at the situations he’s put in where he has to defend all the time,” Tippett said. “Players get hidden well. When (assistant coach) Jimmy (Playfair) is deploying the D, Gross usually gets all the hard situations. It’s because of his experience and him reading the situations.
“He’s not the best puck handler we have but at the end of the game when you’re protecting a lead and want to protect the front of your net, he’s a good player. On the PK, he’s a good player. When you have hard matchups, he’s a good player. You look at a guy like (Klas) Dahlbeck. He’s a young player that sometimes you shield from those situations while he grows so we give Gross the tougher matchups.”
When the Coyotes acquired Kevin Connauton off waivers and then acquired Jarred Tinordi from Montreal, it gave Tippett and Playfair more options with their lineup, but it also created an eight-man logjam on the blue line with four players (Grossmann, Connauton, Tinordi, Dahlbeck) competing for two and sometimes three slots in the lineup.
“We’re trying to rotate the good defenders around a little bit,” Tippett said. “We’ve got three of those guys (Grossmann, Tinordi, Dahlbeck) who fill that same role on the left side.”
“Dahlbeck was out for a little bit so we wanted to get him back up and going. He and Michalek have been a good pair for us lately. Now you’re into deciding whether you want a good defender there or a guy like Connauton who can play the power play. That’s the direction we’ve gone.”
Grossmann never stops working to improve the other areas of his game like puck handling and skating, but he is who he is and he knows that is how he will make his living.
“You always try to get better at other things but playing this way is my shot to be in this league so I keep that as my logo — being a pain in the ass out there and blocking shots and doing the things on the PK that I can do,” he said. “Overall, I think I’ve been pretty solid. My game is even keel. I try to be solid, night in and night out, and I think that’s what I’ve done.”
The other aspect of Grossmann’s presence that is often overlooked is the mentoring role he fills for the Coyotes’ young blue line. Some players say it’s harder to be a mentor when you’re not in the lineup, but Grossmann sees no difference.
“I still talk and joke around with the boys,” he said. “Even though I can’t always show it on game days I try to lead by example in practice in everything from preparation to recovery and work ethic. I just keep pushing and keep being positive.”
Tippett has no idea how you measure that sort of impact other than observation and feel.
“He’s a phenomenal person and a great teammate,” Tippett said. “There are no issues there at all. He knows where he is in his career and he knows how the process goes but it never changes who he is.”
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