Robitaille has got 'it'
Some of the greats, like Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis, just didn't come back this season. Other icons returned and unceremoniously ended their long careers in mid-thought -- guys like Brett Hull and Dave Andreychuk. Still others, like Steve Yzerman, are seeing it through while playing drastically diminished roles. And then there is Luc Robitaille, accomplishing one last feat before he finishes.
Robitaille is wrapping up his third stint with the Los Angeles Kings, the team that drafted him in the ninth round -- 171st overall -- back in 1984. OK, so initially, the word "unheralded" applied to Robitaille. Now, about to turn 40-years-old next month, he has worked his way into the company of greats. Beginning with his Calder honor in 1987, Robitaille has proven that he has "it" -- that rare quality in hockey to make one's strengths as a player matter and stand up over time.
Luc's strength over his illustrious career has been putting the puck in the net, something he has done more than any other left-winger in NHL history. And now he holds the franchise mark for the Kings. He accomplished the feat by authoring a hat trick, thus surpassing Marcel Dionne -- long the symbol of Kings' scoring supremacy. As he said after the game, "I wish it had come earlier in the season, but it was nice that it happened in front of the home fans."
|Luc Robitaille is still delivering for the Kings as he approaches age 40.|
Ah yes, the LA fans and their nearly two decade chant of "Looooooouc, Loooooouc, Looooooouc," as in "those aren't boos you're hearing, those are Loooccs"... loud and adoring still.
Afterwards, Luc had an air of pride about passing Dionne, one of satisfaction borne from the fact that it was Dionne himself that took Robitaille into his home in 1987, took him in to talk hockey and put him on the right path and help him avoid the temptations of youth so available in LA that Dionne had seen derail many an aspiring NHLer.
Dionne recognized early on that Robitaille had that certain something. After all, Robitaille was a gifted goal scorer despite constant knocks on his skating. Yet, he knew what to do on the ice as it pertained to scoring goals. In his first game on his first shift, Robitaille brazenly banged his stick once and called for the puck from, you guessed it, Marcel Dionne. Dionne delivered and so did Robitaille, scoring on his first NHL shot.
It has gone on like that since. And while blessed with an uncanny goal scorer's knack, Robitaille worked hard throughout his career. I remember him telling me in training camp before his rookie year how he worked on his skating all summer with these new "dry-land skates" -- hockey skates with wheels on them -- offered up in demo form by a company called Rollerblades. Being the genius that I am, I nodded while thinking the world already has roller skates, so why would hockey specific skates ever have wide appeal?
So, while that was a huge investment opportunity missed by yours truly, we've all had the good fortune of witnessing Robitaille's scoring exploits over the years. He made it look easy -- the culmination of countless hours of working on his game -- and followed most moments with one of the biggest, brightest smiles the game has known. He was beaming when he scored number 551 in a Kings uniform and uncannily -- never mind approaching 40 --the guy who many dismissed long ago because of his awkward gait on skates, Robitaille passed Dionne in Kings' goal scoring lore by finishing on a breakaway.
One final, definitive demonstration that Luc Robitaille still has "it".
Coaching success outweighs failure
Steve Stirling's dismissal from the New York Islanders' bench means that three teams have now made coaching changes this season, with the Penguins replacing Ed Olczyk with Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh and Larry Robinson stepping down in New Jersey. But instead of rehashing Stirling's stint on Long Island, with post mortem's the norm after a firing, let's take the opportunity to look around the League at some of the coaching successes. After all, they far outweigh those who struggled.
Out West, the top five teams have all had fine coaching performances. Perennial powers Detroit and Dallas have remained so in the first season of the cap era despite many wondering how they would fare since both were notorious free spenders. Dave Tippett in Dallas got his team to adjust after a sluggish start and has done a masterful job of getting a largely veteran team to recognize and adapt to the nuances of the "new" NHL. First year Red Wings coach Mike Babcock came into "Hockeytown" and immediately infused energy that the team had lacked in recent seasons. The Wings continue to ride that fast start atop the Conference standings.
As with Dallas and Detroit, the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators started the season in opposite fashion. Darryl Sutter has guided the Flames back to prominence and dominance after a lethargic start. He has them playing a robust, rugged game with just enough balance on offense to win close games. In similar fashion as their Central Division rival Red Wings; Barry Trotz -- the only man ever to coach the Predators -- had his team primed from the outset. They continue to play a consistent counterpunch game that makes them tough to play against, especially in tight games -- their forte -- where Trotz has his guys sporting a 16-6 record in games decided by one goal.
|Andy Murray has the Kings challenging for Pacific Division supremacy.|
Top honor out West thus far, though, goes to Andy Murray in L.A. He has the Kings challenging the Stars for Pacific Division supremacy and is doing so while beseeching emerging young stars Alexander Frolov and Mike Cammalleri to lead on a nightly basis. Murray's other challenge coming in was finding the right balance in goal with AHL standouts Jason LaBarbera and Mathieu Garon both trying to simultaneously prove that they can carry a team at the NHL level. Right now, Garon has wrested the starter status, but Murray has provided a deft touch in demanding and getting consistency from his team on all fronts to date.
In the East, two veteran coaches have done terrific jobs -- Ken Hitchcock in Philadelphia and Bob Hartley in Atlanta.
Hitchcock has managed to get his team to live up to expectations -- an often-overlooked aspect of a coach doing a good job -- despite a rash of what could have been debilitating injuries. Likewise, Hartley didn't let the Thrashers' season slip away when the team was five spots down on the goaltending depth chart. They hit their nadir of six games below .500, but have climbed back into playoff contention and now sit three games above breakeven. With Kari Lehtonen finally healthy in goal and Mike Dunham set to return soon, Hartley's prowess in the first half sets his team up for the most meaningful second half in franchise history.
Yet, the coaching stories in the East thus far emanate for the state of New York, where upstate in Buffalo Lindy Ruff has his Sabres perplexing the pundits and in Manhattan where Tom Renney has the Rangers back at least as the talk of the town, if not quite yet the toast it. Both are similar in that they knew what players they had in their respective organizations to fill the necessary roles. The difference is that the Sabres under Ruff have been successful with honest, hard-working players comfortable in their roles before. Renney had to not only identify who could fill certain roles, but also get his team at large to buy into a philosophy constructed on pace, persistence and positioning. Both Renney and Ruff have had buy-in and results thus far. If that holds true throughout, their teams may battle in the postseason and the pair will garner their share of votes as the NHL's top coach.
Given all of the masterful coaching jobs authored thus far this season, though, the Jack Adams award may just be another NHL race that goes down to the wire here in the second half.