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Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader and Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Stephane Robidas collide at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Oct. 3.John E. Sokolowski

It was a stretch where he was one of the NHL's iron men, playing 590 games over eight seasons coming out of the season-long lockout in 2005 and establishing himself as a top pair defenceman.

Playing for some solid Dallas Stars teams, Stephane Robidas logged heavy minutes, with only 16 blueliners handling more between 2005-06 and 2012-13.

Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs need him to do it again.

Robidas finally got into his first action with his new team on Friday night, skating in preseason as part of a 5-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings. It was his first game action of any sort since late April, when he badly broke his leg – for the second time in quick succession – in last year's playoffs playing for the Anaheim Ducks.

The rehab was long and gruelling, especially given it was his second time going through it. But he looked calm and comfortable in his Leafs debut on Friday and little like a veteran who'd sat for more than five months.

At the end of the night, he had put in a regular shift alongside captain Dion Phaneuf, played more than four minutes on the penalty kill and nearly 20 overall.

He was thrilled, after so many years playing in Texas, to be on the ice in front of a full house in a hockey market that filled the building for an exhibition game.

He'd also impressed his coach.

"I thought he did great," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "He has that calming effect. I don't think he's a real flashy guy, but he makes some real smart plays. He's got a high IQ."

Robidas has been a low profile player in his career, but he's been a pretty good one. A seventh round pick way back in 1995 – the year after teammate Morgan Rielly was born – he took about seven seasons to play his way into a top pair role, which he filled admirably in Dallas for three years in his early 30s.

Since then, his minutes have predictably been slipping – predictably because he's on the wrong side of 35, and these days, few defencemen hang around the league past then, let alone play big minutes while doing so. (Robidas, by the way, enters the season as the NHL's sixth oldest defenceman.)

But if you take a sober look at how the Leafs blueline is constructed, that's probably what they require.

Provided Cody Franson is healthy – and he may not be to start the year due to a badly banged up knee – Toronto's right side is set, with Robidas, Franson and Roman Polak all firmly entrenched.

None of them is comfortable on the left, and none of them seem particularly suited for first pair duties and the opposition that comes with them.

Robidas is the closest because he's done it before, and so that's where he started on Friday.

He won't need to log time on the power play given the Leafs have so many options there, so his minutes could well fall closer to 20 a game than the 24 he had with the Stars some years, but more concerning than the overall number is who they'll come against.

Last season, Phaneuf and partner Carl Gunnarsson (who was shipped to St. Louis in the off-season) laboured mightily to stop the barrage of shots against from the Crosbys, Girouxs and Stamkoses that defencemen are bound to face in the Eastern Conference from night to night.

Carlyle enjoys his line matching more than most, but part of the trouble there was the minutes his top pair got a year ago were more punishing than what any other NHL duo saw, especially given Gunnarsson-Phaneuf were starting in their own end so much more than the offensive one.

And it's a tall ask putting a man 10 years Gunnarsson's senior in that same spot, even if we leave aside the many months away due to injury the last 12 months.

So while the Leafs have questions all over the roster, few loom bigger than those around Robidas. He's on a three-year contract, but that matters little if an injury forces him into early retirement, as Toronto can simply stash him away on injured reserve and eat the money.

The bigger concern is if his play deteriorates further due to age and the hard miles he's put on, especially if that fall off comes this year, when they likely have to lean on him most.

Leafs GM Dave Nonis and company did a nice job in the off-season of bettering this team's forward depth, which was a glaring need. But that didn't happen on the back end and they're in big trouble if a 20-minute man goes down, as they tend to do over the course of a long season.

To climb the standings, the Leafs are going to need Robidas to be what he was – and to last the year while doing it.

It's a precarious spot, a defining wild card for their season. And it's one of many.