GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the Coyotes acquired defenseman Nicklas Grossman this summer, the true believers in the advanced statistics community had a field day.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ SB Nation blog, Broad Street Hockey, called Grossmann a disaster waiting to happen, citing his poor possession numbers as proof that he was far worse than the rest of Philadelphia’s suspect blue line last season.
Following Grossmann’s first two games as an Arizona Coyote, you could almost predict coach Dave Tippett’s response when he was asked about those analytics.
“All these fancy stats sometimes don’t tell the true story of what actually happens in a game,” Tippett said. “Fancy stats are for people that want to be fancy and act smart and feel like they know everything about the game.
“When you get in the trenches, the fancy stats don’t matter that much. Gross is a guy that plays in the trenches. Do you want him running your power play? No, but do you want him on the ice clearing people out in front of your net with three seconds to go in the game? Yeah.”
Grossmann had several that’s-why-he’s-here moments in a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, including a play in the third period where he literally hauled 6-foot-2, 202-pound wing Sergei Plotnikov away from the front of the net and pinned him up against the glass.
“He’s so strong and powerful that players respect him, so I don’t think he wastes much energy with idle threats or talking,” said Coyotes assistant coach Jim Playfair, who coaches the defense. “Watch him in scrums when he takes somebody and pushes them away. Not very many guys push back. He’s like Shane Doan. It’s a one-and-done situation.”
Grossmann has played that style for so long that he calls it a habit.
“I know how I have to play to contribute,” he said. “I need to play hard and kind of have that edge to my game.”
The 30-year-old Swede understands that much of his game will fly under the radar. He has never taken more than 55 penalty minutes and he has never recorded more than 14 points in a season, but if Grossmann’s value was still in doubt after Friday’s game, those questioning it may not have been paying attention.
“Maybe it sounds weird to some guys but sometimes it almost feels better to block a shot from going in than scoring a goal,” Grossmann said. “Coming back to the bench when you laid down to block a shot or you had a good hit to take a guy out, that satisfaction is almost the same to me (as it is) for guys scoring a goal or making a nice assist.
“It’s just taking pride in what you’re doing. It’s maybe not that fun all the time, but you know it can help the team win.”
Playfair said Grossmann’s skating is underrated, but at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Grossmann won’t be leading any up-ice rushes or chasing down a forward from behind. Instead, he relies on technique, positioning and wisdom to play effectively.
“There’s a lot of old defenseman that say, ‘you know what? Sooner or later the puck’s coming to the net. Maybe I’ll just wait for it to come.'” Tippett said.
“He has a really good gap starting up at the offensive blue line, so with everything that comes back from there, he’s in a good position,” Playfair added. “He’s not wandering around as much as he was in training camp. He’s managing his ice better so he knows where he’s starting from and he knows where he can get to.”
When the Coyotes were trying to protect that 2-1 lead against the Penguins in the closing seconds of Saturday’s game, Tippett came to Playfair and asked him which defensive pairing he wanted on the ice. Playfair chose Grossmann and Connor Murphy.
“You felt like if the Penguins were going to get anything, they were really going to have to earn it,” Playfair said. “It’s so important to have guys like that and I think Gross’s style is starting to have an effect on our other guys. We’ve got three or four players that are really starting to buy in to being hard defenders.”
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