By: Jim Charshafian
Colby Robak didn’t start the season with All-Star aspirations. The 21-year-old San Antonio Rampage defenseman was focused on getting better and adjusting to life as a professional as he entered his second year in the American Hockey League. But his five goals and 19 assists in his sophomore season earned him a spot among the league’s premier players when he was selected to play for the Western Conference squad at the AHL All-Star Classic on January 30th in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“It’s definitely a huge honor to be invited,” Robak said. “It’s something I never thought about until (coach Chuck Weber) pulled me aside and said ‘you’ve been nominated.’ It’s a huge accomplishment for me and I’m very excited.”
Robak, a second-round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, becomes the 11th player in Rampage history to be named to the AHL All-Star Classic, joining a list that includes Filip Novak (02-03), Eric Beaudoin (03-04), Jay Bouwmeester (04-05), Matt Jones (05-06), Bill Thomas (06-07), Joel Perrault (07-08), Brett MacLean twice (08-09 and 10-11), Sean Sullivan (09-10), and Garrett Stafford (10-11). Stafford, a member of the team last season, was the first Rampage player to be selected to start in the exhibition. In the cases of Eric Beaudoin, Jones, Thomas, Perrault, and Stafford, they were eventually replaced to play in the game by Denis Shvidki, Layne Ulmer, Keith Yandle, Joey Tenute, and Mathieu Beaudoin, respectively.
In 42 games this year, Robak has already matched his entire point total (24) for the 2010-11 season with the Rochester Americans, where Weber was his coach as well. Not only has Robak’s offensive production been markedly better, but he has improved his play his own end, as evidence by his team-leading plus-minus rating of plus-11.
“I think last year was more of a learning experience,” he said. “Last year Chuck and (assistant coach Jason Cipolla) sat me down a lot. This year I came in with more confidence. I took what they taught me last year, brought it into this year, and it started working. I’m trying to build on that and keep working.”
Weber said Robak’s belief in himself this season has been the key to his success.
“He’s playing with more confidence this year and that’s a big deal,” said Weber. “It’s a big jump for kids to go from juniors, where they’re playing against other kids, to the pros, where they’re playing against men. I think he’s got the confidence now where he feels he can dominate at this level.
“It’s been a huge improvement for him from his rookie year to his second year. He’s matured both in his defensive play and his overall play. He’s really made a huge impact for us and he’s a deserving pick to be the All-Star representing San Antonio.”
The Rampage, who have played a style predicated on defense for most of the season, have gotten a boost from Robak’s production from the back end.
“Getting our defensemen up into the play and being able to attack as a five-man unit is a big part of our game,” said Weber. “Colby being able to make a solid first pass as well as his shot from the blueline are very important to our offense, and you can see that in his offensive numbers so far.”
“I see myself as a two-way defenseman,” said Robak. “I’m starting to recognize the right time to jump up into the play when the opportunity is there.”
The Dauphin, Manitoba native admits getting on the score sheet is nice, but he knows his first priority is to protect his own net.
“My job is to take care of our end first,” he said. “My plus-minus is something I watch quite a bit and I try to keep on the plus-side every night. If I can chip in a point here or there, then it’s a bonus.”
What separates Robak from other blueliners, in Weber’s opinion, is the defenseman’s mobility.
“His skating ability is special for his size,” said Weber of the 6-foot-3 210-pound Robak. “He can get up in the play as well as get back and help out defensively. He recognizes when to move up in the play and when not to. He’s made some pretty big strides in his decision making.”
Robak attributes much of his improvement this season to being paired with two veteran defensemen, Nolan Yonkman and Tyson Strachan, for a majority of the 2011-12 campaign.
“I feel like I’ve grown playing with Yonkman and Strachan. They’ve helped my development so much this year along with Chuck and Cippy too.”
According to Weber, Robak’s All-Star selection will be the first accolade in a very promising career.
“The sky’s the limit for Colby,” Weber said. “He’s a big kid. He’s a sponge. He wants to learn and get better every day. He’s what we call a ‘rinkrat.’ He loves being on the ice and playing the game. If he continues to work the way he does, he’s not going to be just an NHL defenseman, he’s going to be a top-four NHL defenseman and have a long career.”
That wouldn’t be too bad of a turnout for a player who was just trying to become comfortable on a professional rink back in October.