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As Robinson Succeeds in New Jersey, Kings Don't Regret His Departure

May 30, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Did Larry Robinson get smarter in the swamps of New Jersey? Were the Kings foolish to let him walk away after four rocky seasons as their coach?

If agreeing to coach a talented but disjointed team eight games before the season ended is smart, Robinson is a genius. When he sends out Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik, Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott and Scott Gomez, he looks absolutely brilliant.

Robinson didn't become more intelligent when he succeeded Robbie Ftorek. He inherited a better team than he had in Los Angeles, which is why he and the Devils will face the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup finals starting today at Continental Airlines Arena.

"In my mind, this was the only decision that could be made," Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello said of the change. "We were fortunate to have someone who could take our players to the level they are at today."

Robinson has been credited with helping the Devils rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers in the East finals by delivering a trash can-kicking tirade after Game 4--one that sounded like many he delivered to the Kings. However, he said Monday his role was exaggerated.

"A lot has been said about this so-called speech, but it was more of a tongue-lashing," Robinson said. "I felt our team was much better than we were showing and it was the right place and the right time to do it. I wouldn't say it was like what I did in L.A. There was a lot more at stake here. It's just a different situation, something I don't normally do."

Robinson's biggest accomplishment was healing psyches that were wounded by Ftorek's bluntness. Robinson is a father figure and friend to players and his voice was fresh to them; he boosted Stevens' confidence and helped the rugged defenseman raise his play to MVP-caliber.

"The biggest thing he brought is discipline," Stevens said. "He's got everybody playing as a team, not as individuals. The forwards have really changed and they're helping the defensemen. We played river hockey, trading chance for chance, and that's what got us in trouble.

"Larry has a calming effect behind the bench and that has carried over to the players."

The Kings, however, came to see Robinson as indecisive because he constantly tinkered with line combinations and failed to carry out threats to bench undisciplined players. The only congratulatory phone calls he has received from the Kings are from equipment manager Peter Millar and former assistant coach Jay Leach. No players. "That's fine," he said.

There should be no bitterness on either side. Robinson had lost the Kings' trust, and even with a team that included Ziggy Palffy and Bryan Smolinski, he wouldn't have done better than Andy Murray this season. He couldn't have done any better personally than to guide the Devils to the finals.

"I'm happy for Larry and the success he's having in New Jersey and hopefully, that success will continue," King President Tim Leiweke said. "What David [Taylor, the Kings' general manager] went through in his decision-making process here was something I'm absolutely comfortable with. Everything done was based on the circumstances here and the idea that was the right direction for us to go.

"As much as everyone looks at the Devils and says, 'Did the Kings make a mistake?' you have to note we had the fourth-best record in our history this season under Andy. I guarantee you there is no second-guessing going on in our organization."

THE END OF THE BIG E?

One look at the dazed expression on Eric Lindros' face Friday after a hard but clean shoulder-to-jaw hit by Stevens was enough to think Lindros has played his last NHL game. He said Monday he's considering retiring or taking a year off, although a year's sabbatical only postponed the inevitable for fellow concussion victim Pat LaFontaine.

Lindros' sixth concussion--and third in less than three months--showed how vulnerable he is. Such contact happens a dozen times a game. If he risks brain injury each time he's hit, he's taking a huge gamble. It's difficult to imagine any doctor will clear him to play again, given his history.

It's a tragedy that his career may end at 27, but it would be a greater tragedy if he suffers damage that will impair him the rest of his life.

BY THE TIME HE GOT TO PHOENIX

Although a wavering Wayne Gretzky last Friday agreed to join developer Steve Ellman as a minority owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, the deal is far from done.

Ellman made a non-refundable $10 million payment to owner Richard Burke but must raise $90 million to cover the rest of the purchase price and the cost of running the Coyotes for two years before Ellman's planned new arena will open. There's doubt he can raise the money, and if he fails, that would cancel the deal. In that case, Burke may sell the club to Paul Allen, who would move it to Portland.

Gretzky used his name as equity and invested little or no money. His title and duties will be announced at a news conference Wednesday.

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