Big Bird Lands in San Jose
The Sharks officially welcomed a new associate coach to Todd McLellean’s staff with the introduction of Larry Robinson on Monday. Nicknamed “Big Bird” during his playing career because of his combination of size (6’4” 225 lbs) and mobility, Robinson is one of the game’s most accomplished defensemen having never failed to make the playoffs in 17 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and 3 more with the Los Angeles Kings. Not only was Robinson one of the game’s greatest individual players, he was one of its biggest winners as well.
Here’s a quick glance at some of Robinson’s career accomplishments as a player:
- 958 pts (208-750-958)
- 1384 GP
- Holds the all-time NHL mark for career +/- at +730 (202 higher than Ray Bourque in 2nd place)
- Posted the 2nd highest single season +/- ever at +120 in the 76-77 season (only Bobby Orr’s +124 in 70-71 is better)
- 6 Stanley Cups with Montreal (73, 76, 77, 78, 79, 86)
- 2 Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman (76-77, 79-80)
- Awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs (77-78)
- Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995
Bay Area fans are well aware of the fact that a great player isn’t always a great coach (see Singletary, Mike). Fortunately for the Sharks that’s not the case with Larry Robinson, who specializes in working with defensemen is widely considered to be one of the best assistant coaches in the league today.
Robinson began his coaching career in 1993 as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils. After hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup for the 7th time with the Devils in 1995 Robinson was hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and spent 4 years in Los Angeles from 95-99, qualifying the Kings for the playoffs in 97-98. He then moved back to New Jersey as an assistant coach before taking over for the fired Robbie Ftorek with 8 games left in the 99-00 season and leading the Devils to a Stanley Cup Championship, his 8th, by defeating the Dallas Stars in 6 games. The following season he led the Devils back to the finals where they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in 7 games before being fired during the 01-02 season.
Despite having been fired by Lou Lamoriello and the Devils he returned to New Jersey once again as an assistant coach for the 02-03 season and won his 9th Stanley Cup in 2003. Prior to the 05-06 season, when Pat Burns suffered a recurrence of the cancer that would eventually take his life, Larry Robinson was once again elevated from assistant coach to head coach of the Devils. Robinson’s second stint as head coach in New Jersey came to an end on December 19, 2005 when he stepped down citing stress related health problems. With a couple of years of rest under his belt Robinson returned to the Devils as an assistant coach prior to the 07-08 season and since then has remained in the Devils organization as an assistant coach and a special assignment coach, including this past season when the Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals in 6 games.
As Drew Remenda said on Marek Vs. Wyshynksi Radio, Larry Robinson immediately becomes the most accomplished player or coach the Sharks have ever had. There’s no doubt that he will play a big role in attempting to improve a penalty kill that finished 29th in the NHL with a success rate of just 76.9% and was even worse in the playoffs, but his impact will be felt by the defense core in all phases of the game. Over the past few years the Sharks have struggled with aggressive forechecks that can put pressure on the Sharks defensemen, often times scrambling in their own end, failing to break out effectively, and eventually turning the puck over. Defensive communication and positioning has been a recurring problem for the Sharks both on the penalty kill and at even strength and that’s an area Larry Robinson will be tasked with improving.
In addition to the struggles killing penalties, which have a trickle down effect on the players’ ability to play aggressively for fear of taking a penalty the team can’t kill, the Sharks really struggled to score goals during the second half of the season last year. In his April 2, 2012 30 Thoughts column Elliotte Friedman of the CBC mentioned that losing Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in trades with the Minnesota Wild may have hurt the Sharks ability to score “easy goals.” Without those two goal scorers the Sharks struggled to put teams away when they had a lead or get the key goal needed to spur a comeback in games they were losing. Although Larry Robinson will be working primarily with the defensemen his work could also bear fruit in the form of an increase in the “easy goals” the Sharks lost. Better organization on the back-end would help spring the Sharks forwards for an increase in odd-man rushes and breakaways, key components which seemed to all but disappear from the Sharks offensive repertoire last year. If the defense can get the puck up to the forwards quickly the Sharks can generate more speed through the neutral zone, play faster, and prevent teams like the St. Louis Blues from clogging up the neutral zone.
Bringing in Larry Robinson to work with the team’s defensemen provides a great opportunity for each of the members of the blueline to improve, but the biggest winner in the lineup could turn out to be Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. Vlasic has been the Sharks most consistent defensemen almost from the day he arrived in San Jose in 2006 as a 19 year old kid, and his defensive accumen has been a double edged sword for him ever since. Vlasic has typically been tasked with focusing on a defensive role, either by pairing him with another defensive stalwart to form a shutdown pair or by having him cover for the defensive mistakes of a more offensive minded defenseman like Brent Burns or Dan Boyle. If Robinson can increase the overall defensive responsibility, positioning, and communication of the group so that there aren’t as many holes for Vlasic to cover, Pickles may be more available to jump into the offense and return to the form he showed in 08-09 when he scored 36 pts (6-30-36) with a +15 rating. At 25 and with 6 full seasons in the NHL Vlasic is already one of the most underrated and experienced young defensemen in the game today, and the addition of Larry Robinson could mean Vlasic takes another big step towards becoming an even better and more complete defenseman.
In a perfect world the Sharks would have been able to chase Ryan Suter or add a goal scorer to their top 6 forwards this offseason without having to sacrifice anything from the current NHL roster, but in the hard salary cap world of the NHL those were both unlikely outcomes. Alexander Semin and Shane Doan are still available via free agency, so it’s not impossible for the Sharks to add some scoring if either of those players can’t find the deal they’re looking for as the summer rolls on and are willing to take a contract that fits into the Sharks salary structure. For now though, Doug Wilson has focused on finding ways to improve the players he already has under contract and adding an accomplished individual like Larry Robinson to the coaching staff in San Jose is a big step in the right direction.
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