Inside Dallas Stars rookie Jason Robertson's journey to his 2021 breakout

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Stars were in the Edmonton postseason bubble last summer for 66 days, longer than any other team. Jason Robertson was there for all of it, but didn't get a single minute of game action. "I took warm-ups for a couple games," the 21-year-old said. "That was the closest I ever got."

The Stars' 2017 second-round pick, coming off his first professional season in the AHL, was called up as a "black ace" throughout the 2020 playoffs. It's a typical assignment for a rising star, in a very atypical year.

"It was kind of a weird scenario," Robertson said. "I wasn't familiar or wasn't really close to anyone on the team, coming up from Texas [in the AHL], but you are brought in to their little family. You are trying to build that emotional connection -- albeit I never played, or was out there fighting with them -- but you're still looking to build that bond or connection they all have together. There was a lot of experience for me to gain; I mean, it was Stanley Cup playoff hockey, the best hockey there is, and I was right there all the way up through the Stanley Cup Final."

While Robertson gained observational experience -- sitting in on every meeting, watching his teammates prep for every game, understanding how tough it is to grind until the end only to have someone else finish with a trophy -- he had gone more than six months without playing in a game himself.

"When the bubble concluded, I gave him a couple weeks, then called him," said Rich Peverley, the Stars' player development coordinator. "I said, 'I have a place for you to play in Europe,' because we wanted him to play. And this stands out in my head. He said, 'I really appreciate you doing that, but I know what I need to do to make it to the NHL, and it's not to play in games, I need to get a lot stronger and I need to get a lot faster.'"

So Robertson returned to his family home in Michigan, and got to work with a trainer. He made the Stars' opening night roster in 2021, but through his first few games wasn't making much of an impact. Robertson was a healthy scratch for a handful of early-season games. He says now that he may have been "uptight" or afraid to make mistakes.

"We had a discussion this year around that time, and watched some video together," Peverley said. "As much confidence as he had, not playing is hard. But he was willing to work. He loves the game so much, he'll go home and watch all of his shifts because he wants to get better. There's only so many players I've had, in my minimal time in this role, where they're there because they love it so much. They'll go home and they'll work on things, when everyone else is home doing other things. He naturally has the drive to be the best player."

Finally, it all came together. Over the past two-plus months, the offensively gifted winger has arguably been the Stars' best player, and certainly one of their most indispensable ones. Since Feb. 7, Robertson has scored a team-high 15 goals and 40 points as Dallas makes its final push for a playoff spot in the Central Division, following a sluggish start marred by injuries to key veterans. The 21-year-old was especially impressive in April, when he was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month after appearing on the scoresheet in 13 of 17 games, including a nine-game point streak.

Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov is still the favorite to win the Calder Trophy, but Robertson has made it an interesting race. He could still win it too, considering he has a slightly higher points-per-game average (0.87 versus 0.86) as well as a much higher expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 (56.50% vs 47.84%). Robertson is now on Dallas' top line, alongside Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz, and broke Jamie Benn's franchise record for most points for a rookie at even strength in a season (35).

"I give the kid total props," Peverley said. "He's reaping the rewards of putting the work in."

Robertson has a uniquely American hockey story. He was born in Los Angeles, and got interested in the sport because his father and grandfather were Kings season-ticket holders. "I have two brothers who also played travel hockey [including Nick, currently a Toronto Maple Leafs rookie]" Robertson said. "And with traffic in L.A., and different practice times and arenas, it was a pain in the butt for my parents to get around."

So the Robertsons got an RV. While one brother was on the ice, the others could be sitting in the parking lot, catching up on schoolwork or just staying entertained. "We'd just bring the big rig to the rink, and just let it marinate for four, five hours," Robertson said. And then they'd be on the move again.

The family moved to Michigan in 2010, which brought more conventional hockey opportunities. "The hockey in California -- it's not that it wasn't as competitive, it just wasn't as up to par yet with the Midwest or the East Coast," Robertson said. "If I had to guess, I probably wouldn't have gotten the same exposure staying in California, because it wasn't as much of a hockey market yet. It's getting there, though."

Robertson's mother was born in Manila, Philippines, before moving to California as a child, making him only the third player of Filipino descent to be drafted to the NHL.

"Nick and I certainly are excited for the opportunity to be role models -- not just for the Asian community, but for anyone from different backgrounds, or anyone trying to get into the game of hockey," Robertson said. "Nick and I, and our whole family to be honest, have always been welcomed at rinks. We've never had to deal with any racism or any of that stuff, which is fortunate because there really shouldn't be any room for that in the world, it's unacceptable."

Playing in Michigan opened the door to the OHL, where Robertson generated serious NHL buzz. He was drafted by the Stars in 2017 as part of what is turning out to be a transformative draft class for Dallas, as they selected top defenseman Miro Heiskanen No. 3 overall, potential goalie-of-the-future Jake Oettinger (No. 26) and Robertson (No. 39) with their first three picks.

Robertson was the leading scorer in the CHL in the 2018-19 season before going pro. The Stars wanted him to replicate that success, but knew he'd need to make some adjustments.

"Junior players, they can basically do whatever they want on the ice, because if they're going to be productive, the coach is continually going to put them out," Peverley said. "That's one thing we had to bring to Jason: To play in the NHL, or even AHL, you have to be trusted. If a coach doesn't trust you, you're not going to play in critical times. Rick Bowness is no different. Everyone needs to play the same way."

It was something that Robertson had to work on, even as he scored 25 goals in his first 60 games in the AHL.

"His hockey IQ is off the charts, he has the ability to win tough battles; to me it's elite what he can do when he has the puck," Peverley said. "But I watch him this year, he backchecks so hard. Two years ago, he'd probably be waiting on the blue line for a breakaway pass. Now when he gets in on the forecheck, he doesn't stop moving his feet. He stops in his own zone and he's blocking shots. These are things told to him by the coaching staff and the development staff of how to be an NHL player -- and he did it."

Said Robertson: "My coaches, Rich, they've all told me I have the skill and talent to make plays with the puck. Playing without it is what I needed to improve on. So that's what I've been working on the last few months, those small details that get exposed if you're not playing right: staying above the puck, tracking, making good defensive decisions."

The Stars now have five remaining games to get into the playoff field, and then they know anything can happen. While Robertson isn't immune to hearing buzz around his Calder-worthy campaign, he won't focus on it.

"At the end of the day, I want to make the playoffs, everyone in that locker room wants to make the playoffs," Robertson said. "I feel like I'd let everyone in that locker room down if I didn't have the playoffs as my No. 1 goal. Whatever happens, happens, but the playoffs are where I want to be. That's where I was in the bubble for two and a half months, and never touched the ice, but I want to be an impact player in the playoffs now. That's where I want to be."

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

1. It sounds like the NHL is aiming to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs -- at least for the three United States-based divisions -- on May 15. The first two rounds are intradivisional. After that, the league is still hopeful for an exemption from the Canadian government for American teams to travel over the border. (The NHL would likely have to agree to some sort of bubble environment as a concession, through a bubble is not expected for the first two rounds of the playoffs.)

But more than likely, the NHL will temporarily relocate the final Canadian team to a U.S. city for the semifinals. The decision on where might not be made until a couple of days before the semifinals begin. As NHL executive Steve Mayer reminded me last week, the Edmonton bubble was scheduled only two weeks out, and involved getting 12 teams on site. This is just one team, so it's much easier.

It sounds like the league is "wide open" to ideas on where that neutral site could be. But before you dream too big, expect it to be in an NHL arena, as it's easier for the league to operate from an infrastructure perspective rather than a collegiate arena, like Ralph Engelstad Arena at the University of North Dakota (no matter how cool that might look).

There could be some scheduling issues in arenas, including some shared NBA buildings. Also, a couple of arenas already have concerts scheduled for this summer, such as a Justin Bieber world tour.

2. As for fans in the buildings for the playoffs? This week, Chicago will be the final American-based city to allow fans back into the arena. There are still no fans in Canadian cities. During the postseason, the NHL is "fine with whatever the local government says," Mayer told me.

The capacities have varied greatly from market to market. However, it's unlikely we will get to full capacity by the end of the playoffs, as there still probably needs to be a "moat" around players on the bottom ring of the arena, as a form of protection.

3. Ryan Miller is retiring as the winningest American-born goalie in NHL history. From his time at Michigan State, he still holds the Division I record for career shutouts (26) and is the last goaltender to win the Hobey Baker Award (he did it back in 2001). And of course, Miller is known for his Olympic heroics, almost carrying Team USA to Olympic gold in Vancouver 2010.

That all leads to this amazing stat. According to the Ducks, Miller is the only player ever to be named the top goaltender in the NHL, Winter Olympics, AHL and the NCAA's top player and best goaltender in his career.

4. I caught up with Miller early in February and we talked about the fact that he had considered retirement after last season. "The nature of what the league is like now, and that abrupt ending with no clear path forward, I didn't know how it would work out," Miller said then. "I was trying to think about what else could happen. But after spending some time and reflecting, I wanted to give myself an opportunity to keep going if I could, and it worked out."

Miller played on a one-year, $1 million deal with the Ducks this season, and by announcing his retirement with a handful of games left, ensured he could get a proper goodbye to the game. I'm glad he did. The respect opponents have for the 40-year-old is apparent.

5. I'm constantly asking around on names to monitor for front-office jobs. Miller is an active player whose name has come up often. He has been vocal behind the scenes during lockouts, and also an advocate for all goalies on equipment and safety issues.

"I could see him as a GM one day," one league source told me. "But only if he wants it."

Three stars of the week

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

Another absurd week for McDavid, including four goals and six assists in four games. At this point, another Art Ross Trophy (it would be his third) and Hart (his second) feel inevitable. McDavid also hit the 400-game milestone this week, with 556 career points. Eerily, Sidney Crosby hit the 400-game milestone with a very similar line of 554 career points.

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

En route to winning the goal-scoring crown (becoming the first American to do so since Keith Tkachuk in 1996-97), Matthews scored four goals in three games, including three game winners. This might be his prettiest of the bunch:

Semyon Varlamov, G, New York Islanders

He posted shutouts in both of his starts this week, extending a career-high and franchise-record scoreless streak to 213:56. He has a league-high seven shutouts this season, with four of them coming against the Rangers. Dark horse Vezina Trophy candidate, anyone?

What we liked this week

1. Jaromir Jagr last played in the NHL in 2017-18 with the Calgary Flames, but he's still going at it with his hometown club in the Czech Republic, Kladno, which he owns. At age 49, Jagr said he has no plans to retire next season -- even though he admits his play is declining. He scored two goals and eight assists in 16 playoff games as Kladno won the second-tier league to earn a promotion to Czech Extraliga next season.

"I expect much more from myself and I don't have it," Jagr told NHL.com. "But I am aware that when I leave, many [business] partners will leave the team too. That's why I have no choice."

Jagr noted that Kladno has an outdoor game next season -- previously postponed due to the pandemic -- which he feels pressure to play in.

"The main reason I am still playing is my responsibility to the club," Jagr said. "If I did not have any, I would not be flying around on the ice here. Because I am embarrassing myself there, I can say."

2. Welcome to the show, Cole Caufield! What a way to make your debut, scoring the game winner in overtime:

I hate to make the comparison because they are both smaller-statured players, but I get serious Alex DeBrincat vibes from Caufield. Seeing that Debrincat has scored 112 goals through his first 281 NHL games, that is a compliment.

3. Also welcome to the show, Seattle Kraken! They are officially an NHL team after making a payment to the league last week. That means 30 teams are a little bit richer (Vegas doesn't get a cut of the $650 million entry fee, but also doesn't have to give up a player in the expansion draft), but the league is also a lot more competitive.

Now the Kraken are officially able to sign players or make transactions, but I'm curious about what handshake agreements they've already made. Remember, the Golden Knights had an under-the-table deal with the Penguins to acquire Marc-Andre Fleury in February ahead of their July expansion draft in 2017.

What we didn't like this week

The Vancouver Canucks placed forward Jake Virtanen on leave after allegations of sexual misconduct. A woman, who asked to remain anonymous for "fear of public backlash," told Glacier Media that she met Virtanen in September 2017. She said the two agreed to meet and that Virtanen picked her up and drove her to a Vancouver hotel, where a sexual assault took place. "I couldn't believe that I said no and he didn't take that for an answer," the woman told Glacier Media. "I felt violated and gross and wanted to leave."

The woman said she contacted the police, but there are currently no charges pending.

Here's a reminder that the NHL does not have a specific domestic violence policy, handling cases on an individual basis. It is the only one of the four major professional North American sports leagues not to have such a policy. It is uncharacteristic of the NHL to punish players without corroborating evidence, police or court records, or a person coming forward. Typically, rulings are made by commissioner Gary Bettman.

I was told that the NHL is monitoring the situation, but it sounds like the Canucks have begun an independent investigation first.

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Thursday: New York Rangers at Boston Bruins, 7 p.m.

After brutal back-to-back shutouts, the Rangers' playoff hopes are a long shot. They'd basically have to win out, and the Bruins would have to lose their final six. But ... you're telling me there's a chance? This game could keep things alive, or serve as the final dagger.

Saturday: Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

This very well could be a first-round playoff matchup if the Hurricanes win the Central. But this game is critically important first -- and would be imperative for either of these teams to overtake Carolina at No. 1. Giddy up; the Battle of Florida has never been more fun.

Saturday: St. Louis Blues at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. (ESPN+)

Over their past five games, the Blues have picked up nine out of a possible 10 points to ensure the inside track for the final playoff spot in the West. That could mean a date with the Golden Knights in the first round, though Vegas needs to hold off Colorado for the top seed.

Social media post of the week

Legendary troll job from Panthers goalie Chris Driedger: