A huge third period goal against the Wild’s biggest rival on New Year’s Eve with the home crowd going nuts…he couldn’t resist. After slamming a slap shot from the top of the left circle past Vancouver Canucks goaltender Maxime Ouellet to put Minnesota up 4-2, Randy Robitaille skated along the glass between him and his home crowd and lifted a hand to his ear to say, “Let’s hear it!”
Normally, after a goal, Robitaille might raise his arms, or give a little fist pump before hugging his teammates. But the semi-showboating had to be done, just this once. Or, maybe not.
“I know some of the guys (in the Wild locker room) liked it,” joked Robitaille. “So who knows? Maybe there’ll be more to come. I don’t usually do stuff like that when I score, but I figured in that moment, ‘let’s have some fun.’”
| Robitaille and Brian Rolston have certainly gotten used to congratulating each other lately. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn) |
It’s not like Robitaille isn’t used to scoring. He’s been there before. Offense has never been a difficult concept to grasp for the eight-year National Hockey League veteran. Blessed with tremendous on-ice vision and a playmaker’s touch, Robitaille can set up goals with the best of them. He has no problem scoring them himself either.
Lately, while skating on a line with two more snipers named Rolston and White, Robitaille has been on a run the likes of which he’s rarely experienced. Through 40 games played, Robitaille had already totaled 23 points on 10 goals and 13 assists, and is well on his way to surpassing his previous highs of 14 goals and 23 assists that he established with Los Angeles and Pittsburgh in 2001-02.
That was his best offensive year, but 2005-2006 has undoubtedly been his best season at both ends of the rink.
“All around game, yeah, this has been my best year,” agreed the Ottawa, Ontario native. “Offensively, I had a pretty good stretch with the Penguins, but as far as an all-around game at both ends of the rink, I think it’s the best I’ve ever played.”
Some eyebrows were raised when Robitaille was claimed off waivers from Nashville by Minnesota just as training camp ended in early October. He had already bounced around to six different NHL teams, and had been pigeonholed as a strictly offensive-minded player.
Around these parts, NHL players who focus only on offense don’t mesh well with the philosophies of Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. If players don’t conform to Lemaire’s preaching, they’ll likely be doing more watching than playing.
But the Wild coach doesn’t discard an offensive player like a gum wrapper. Similarly, Lemaire won’t try to force the player to change his game, or what his strengths are. He works with that player so he can help the team offensively and defensively. The “new” Randy Robitaille may be one of Lemaire’s best creations as a head coach.
For Robitaille, the way Lemaire has handled his particular situation has been exactly what he needed.
| Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire now has the confidence in Robitaille to put him up against anybody, including Mike Modano. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn) |
“I think what makes a coach a really good coach is how he is able to relay his message to the players,” explained Robitaille. “ What makes Jacques such a good coach is he knows what each player needs, and how that player is going to respond to what he’s being asked to do. Each player responds differently to different criticisms, or whatever you want to call it.”
Why not call it criticism? Robitaille is well aware of the fact that he was tagged as an offensive weapon, but a defensive liability. He wasn’t happy with the distinction, but he also didn’t feel it was necessarily warranted.
“Getting labeled as just an offensive guy…I probably wasn’t happy with that,” he admitted. “Playing defense has got a lot to do with confidence. When the coaches talk about gaining confidence, it’s not just on the offensive side, it’s also defensively.”
With his recent play, Robitaille has gained confidence in himself, as well as his head coach.
“He’s more intense since he came here,” said Lemaire. “He uses his skill to his advantage. He’s good with the puck and he can make solid plays. He’s playing well defensively, and he’s intense.”
After playing with six different teams, the 30-year-old Robitaille has run the gamut in dealing with coaching philosophies. In four months with the Wild, he has come to appreciate everything that the Wild coaching staff has preached to him.
“The coaching staff has been really helpful in teaching me the little things that I need to know if I want to keep playing,” he said. “I knew that I had to pay more attention to the little details. They don’t expect me to do something that I’m not comfortable doing on the ice, as far as running around and hitting guys.
In the past, I’ve been in situations where coaches have tried to change my game, instead of helping me on my weak parts, and working with my strengths. This is the best situation for me.”
Robitaille has found that paying attention to what’s going on in his own zone is only going to help him get more chances offensively. His statistics prove that. To him, it makes perfect sense. If you don’t play “D,” you don’t play. It’s tough to contribute goals and assists if you’re not playing.
| Robitaille currently ranks fourth in both goals (10) and points (23) on the Wild scoring charts. (cr. Bruce Bennett) |
“Everyone knows that if you want to put up good numbers, you’ve got to play a lot. So, if you’re not playing well in the defensive zone, you’re not going to be out there. Jacques realizes when guys are playing well, and he’ll play them, and that’s how you get your confidence.”
Robitaille has obviously thrived in this situation, and he’d like to keep it going. Like many players who’ve stepped inside the home locker room at Xcel Energy Center, he realizes there are few situations that are better in the entire league for a player who hasn’t stayed in one NHL city for longer than two seasons.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be in one spot for more than a year and a half,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully I can play the way I’ve been playing, and I can find a home here. It’s a great place to play with sellouts every night, it’s like playing back home in Canada. The crowd is definitely the reason why we play so well at home, and you hear that from other coaches and players who come in here and say ‘this is a tough place to play because of how loud it is.’”
And when Robitaille scores again, it won’t help the opponents if he keeps egging on his hometown fans with a hand to his ear.