ST. LOUIS — In a distinguished 20-year career in which he won six Stanley Cup championships, Larry Robinson played 227 playoff games, the second-highest total in NHL history. But when it comes to playoff coaching experience, he's a rookie all over again at age 46.
And like any rookie, Robinson felt a mixture of anticipation, anxiety and eagerness Wednesday as he prepared the Kings for their playoff opener tonight against the St. Louis Blues at the Kiel Center. "This is what it's all about," he said.
As a player, Robinson did everything instinctively. His intelligence, reach and strength were his weapons, and he could control his performance. As a coach, he can't hit someone or block a shot, and that lack of control was a source of frustration. So was the need to forge an identity, to learn when to administer a pat on the back and when to unleash a kick in the rear. He struggled to vary his words so players wouldn't tune him out.
He was not perfect. He sometimes was too harsh publicly and too quick to threaten to bench players without carrying through. "He couldn't afford to," defenseman Rob Blake said. "He had nobody to bring up. You can't do it when the only guy you can call up is a midget."
The Kings missed the playoffs in Robinson's first two seasons--the first he had missed after a 22-year streak that included two seasons as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils--but he has coaxed, cajoled and prodded them back into postseason play for the first time since their 1993 run to the Cup finals.
Robinson has learned, after too many sleepless nights and the recurrence of a nervous condition that made his skin peel in sheets, to maintain a steadier emotional keel. The acquisition of Garry Galley, Jozef Stumpel and Luc Robitaille last summer gave him better material and relieved him of having to piece tiny scraps of material into a solid whole, but he also became a better coach.
Under Robinson and assistant coaches Jay Leach, Rick Green and Don Edwards, the Kings made a 20-point turnaround this season, second only to the Boston Bruins' 30-point jump. Robinson seems better able to sense when to hammer and when to pull back; he has been stern in the midst of a winning streak and forgiving after a loss if he judged the effort acceptable. He's more sure of himself, better at reading his team's mood and letting players draw emotional cues from him.
"I think he sees results," Galley said. "There's been some changes, and since we came into training camp, I think there was a feeling of, whew, now we've made the right changes.
"Larry has seen some light and seen things turn more positive."
Robinson's mood was decidedly upbeat Wednesday. His instructions on the ice were loud but not strident, conveying a barely suppressed air of excitement. It was the right tone to set for a team that saw some of its gains slip away in the last month and begins this series as an underdog.
"Over the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of negative feelings and negativity around the team because of our record, and if there's one thing you don't want to do, it's go into a playoff series down on yourself," he said. "We [coaches] have to be the cooler heads. If you get into the playoffs, you usually bring a lot of excitement and a lot of guys that are kind of on edge. You have to make sure that you calm things. You have to make sure the right people are on the ice and you have to be able to say the right things at the right time."
Robinson has been mentioned as a coach-of-the-year candidate, with Boston's Pat Burns, St. Louis' Joel Quenneville and Pittsburgh's Kevin Constantine. Of that quartet, he's the only one who has been with his team more than 1 1/2 seasons. "One coach doesn't seem to stay with one group long," said Quenneville, who took over the Blues in January of 1997. "Players grow tired of the same message.
"It's a matter of adapting to it. You've got to be willing to change, whether from a coaching perspective or players being willing to receive the message."
The Kings have gotten Robinson's message, and they have responded well. However, their biggest test is about to begin.
"This team is playing for Larry because the system he installed is the only way we can win," Blake said. "You can see guys have confidence in the system. Before, we were blessed with a talented team, with the greatest player in the game [Wayne Gretzky], Tomas Sandstrom and guys like that. St. Louis has that now. Our team is totally different from 1993."
Qualifying for the playoffs isn't enough for Robinson. It wasn't good enough when he played in Montreal, and he has carried that drive behind the bench. It might be the best notion he can instill in his players in their first collective playoff venture. This trip, he said, "will mean we are moving in the right direction and through five years of waiting and painful watching, we've got something to build on."
The Kings have hardly been a model of stability in their 31 NHL seasons. Of their 18 coaches, only Bob Pulford (five seasons and 396 games) has had a longer tenure than Robinson, who has coached 246 games. And remember, he could have invoked an escape clause in his contract last summer. Instead, he stayed to finish a job that a year ago seemed hopeless. Losing to St. Louis would not erase the gains Robinson and the Kings have made this season.