There are enough NHL-smart people who believe the Kings have no business being on the verge of knocking out the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks from the playoffs in the first round, which could happen with Game 5 of their series tonight.
The man who heads the Kings’ business department knows how the numbers add up on his spread sheet.
“Even when you looked at our roster last summer, on paper, a lot people thought we could be very dangerous,” said Luc Robitaille, strategizing from his El Segundo office the other day. “You look at this team now, no one wants to face us in the playoffs. When you have the goaltending we have, the way we play structurally, we don’t give up things. We’re very tough to play against.
“If we get a couple of guys hot, like we’ve had the last couple of months, we are dangerous.”
There could be a danger in setting expectations too high, but there’s also a shoot-high mindset that Robitaille, the Hockey Hall of Fame left winger and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, has brought to the organization since he was named the head of business operations six years ago.
Although he’s not in full playoff-beard mode, the 46-year-old who still looks like the rookie he was when he broke in with the Kings as a ninth-round pick out of Montreal is in full playoff focus:
Question: Clean shaven? Your playoff beard isn’t looking too good, is it?
Answer: No, no . . . I’m up and down on that. I love how in this city people just jump on that kind of thing. Our community relations people want me to do it, but, listen, when I do the beard, we don’t win. The one year I didn’t do the beard (2002 in Detroit), we won the Cup. I can’t even get a good beard going. It’s all in the neck. I think I did it back in ’92 (during the playoffs with the Kings) but I had hair going everywhere.
Q: But you always look like you’re 14 anyway. With a beard, it just wouldn’t look right.
A: I look like a 14-year-old trying (laughing).
Q: Jerry West, when he was an executive with the Lakers, had a tough time watching games in person during the playoffs because it was so nerve wracking to him. How are you to be around during Kings’ playoff time?
A: I’m good, but there’s a side of me where I watch the game in a different way. During the season, there’s 82 games and you’re not going to win ’em all, so you figure out what you’re doing and make adjustments. It’s always a long haul. To me the playoffs are the same thing. You’re up, 3-0, you lose a game, OK, let’s go to the next one. It’s not like I’m emotional, I’m just more analytical.
From doing the business end, I’m always watching what we’re doing in the stands. How is the crowd feeling it? I’ve learned to watch the game in a totally different manner. It’s interesting on my take on games has been over the last few years. I can look intense, but to be honest, in the games in L.A., we’re so busy, we’re talking with sponsors and things. There’s something I’ve enjoyed going on the road when I can just sit and watch games. Then you get really intense, studying the whole thing.
Q: How have you explained to people why the Kings are up 3-1 in this series, and could have been in position to sweep?
A: It’s funny, there’s that side of our game that we’ve played well all year — the defensive side. We haven’t given up a lot up the middle, only shots on the outside. If a team does get into the middle, we’ve got one of the best goalies (Jonathan Quick) in the game. He’s been underrated the last three years, funny enough. And people back East don’t see him so much when we’re playing at 10:30 p.m. (EDT). So from that standpoint, I feel comfortable.
I didn’t like how we were playing offensively, not generating enough speed, and (coach) Darryl (Sutter) adjusted a few things and suddenly we’ve got a lot more speed as a team. Scoring goals isn’t always about scoring goals, it’s scoring chances. We’re creating more scoring chances, and over time, we’ll score more goals. So, you look at the first three games (against Vancouver), and it’s a lot of what we’ve done the last month and a half. We’re always in the game. It’s not like the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, where there’s scoring chances all the time. A Kings game is very tight, and we force the other team to play the same way. We out-will a lot of teams. To me, I’m comfortable where we are, because that’s how we play. But there’s one thing in hockey – if it’s a 1-0 game, or a 2-1 game, one break could make things go the other way. Hit a post, hit a skate. We’ve been playing that way the last two or three years now. If you stick to what you believe in, you end up ahead at the end.
Q: Is the momentum still on the Kings’ side going into Game 5?
A: Yeah, for us, we just have to win one game. We gave ourselves a chance to win one out of four (going into Game 5). But you do want to win as quickly as possible, play as tight as possible, and the first two periods (of Game 4) we played really well. That said, there wasn’t a lot of scoring chances on either side. At 2-1, we get a penalty shot, if we make that, it’s 2-2 and maybe it’s into overtime. You never know. I think it’s the same (for Game 5). We’ll see from there what happens.
Q: From the business end and looking at numbers, if game stat sheet says the Kings have more shots on goal, as well as more hits, does that usually translate into more wins?
A: It’s a good sign that you’re working hard. They’re on. Sometimes you don’t even have to watch the game to know that just from seeing those kinds of statistics. But creating scoring chances is another ballgame. If you’re outhitting a team, you’re on the fore check, then you’re doing something right.
Q: Do you have a head for looking at numbers now and deciphering things from a game?
A: I’m a big feel guy, even though I do work with numbers. I know the game within the game is very important. When (Anze) Kopitar gets into the first fight of his career (in Game 3 against Alex Burrows), it shows you, Oh, boy, everyone in the organization knows how serious this is. When the most skilled player who’s never fought is doing that, there’s something going on here, out of the ordinary. That feel is very important for a hockey team.
Q: The last couple of months, the team had so much trouble scoring. Did you have any urge to put on the skates and get down there and take a few shots of your own?
A: Ah, no (lauging). I know I’m done. Scoring goes through ups and downs. Watch a player like (the Rangers’ Marian) Gaborik. Maybe he hasn’t scored in seven games. But what I always tell people, watch what he did in those seven games. If he did nothing, it’s different than if he’s always in the same place. If he’s in the same place, he’ll get seven goals next time. Those pure goal scorers are a creature of habit. Keep driving the net, keep shooting. Maybe it looks like he’s streaky but what people forget, he may not have scored, but he was doing the same thing night after night. What I didn’t like about the fact we weren’t scoring goals is that we weren’t creating chances. I’m OK if a guy like Kopitar doesn’t score for seven games as long as he’s creating three, four, five chances on his own. Sooner or later, he’s going to explode. If he’s not getting chances, then you gotta fix something.
These players as a whole, they’re pretty special kids. It’s fun to see Dustin Brown elevate his game. There’s rumors (of a trade), and he’s going through a season where maybe he’s unhappy about something, and you don’t know really what’s bugging you, but then you’re up against a wall and suddenly, all of this stuff doesn’t matter, I gotta pick it up. I give him a lot of credit. He’s turned it around and been a different player since February.
Q: The playoff games have been standing room only. The team has sold out 37 of 39 Staples Center dates. The average attendance is more than 18,000. What do those numbers tell you about the fan experience, and has that made your job more fun?
A: I knew a lot about the passion of the Kings’ fans already having been here since ’86, but to really get how some of them are — no one understands that in Canada, or back East. They might have passionate fans, but they don’t understand how passionate the Kings’ fans are. It’s incredible. It’s a unique experience where we’ve increased our communication (with the fans) the last four or five years, letting them know how we’ve been in a rebuilding process, and that’s tough to swallow sometimes when you’re a fan. I give them a lot of credit for sticking by what we’ve believed.
Today, we haven’t won the Cup, that’s the goal, but we’ve been rewarded with being in the playoffs the last three years. There’s a belief that we’ll do whatever it takes to win. To me, that’s what’s most important. You don’t know if you are going to win it, but you’ve got to try to win the Cup every year. Our fans are on board and our ownership group has been unbelievable. (General manager) Dean (Lombardi wanted (Mike) Richards – done. He wanted (Jeff) Carter – done. People may not realize we have four players tied up for $200 million (going forward). All the heat that (ownership group) AEG took in the past, out of nowhere, we’re the team that has the most amount committed over the next few years. But it’s been fun from that standpoint.
Q: If the Kings win this series, knocking out the President’s Cup winner, it’s impressive. But even Kings’ teams that pulled off surprise first-round wins in the past from being a lower seed, whether it’s ’82 or ’91, they lost in the second round. Would it be a huge disappointment to beat the Canucks but still didn’t get past the second round?
A: Our goal to start the year is to win the Cup, not to just get past the first round. We weren’t happy the way the (regular) season went. We’re happy about the way we’re playing. If win the first round and lose in the second, we’ll need to make adjustments. That’s the mentality of this organization as a whole, from now on, in how we think and speak. I don’t think anyone will rest on their laurels if we win the first round. If we lose in the semifinals, we’ll have to adjust. I can tell you, winning the first round is not our goal.
Q: It looks like a team – from goalie, to power play to health – that’s built for long-term success. A solid core to move even if you did lose in the second round because of a fluke goal or whatever.
A: The core is so young – Drew (Doughty), Quick, Brown, even Richards and Carter are fairly young. We’ve added a lot of good character guys. I’m comfortable where we are. It’s just taking the next step.
Q: Does the Jack Johnson trade for Jeff Carter is paying off?
A: It was worth it at the time, because we needed to do something, create a spark. At that time, he was available. He stabilized our team right away. He’s a great shooter, and a threat to score, but what he also did was create two lines as a threat. It always seemed to be just one line, not a one-two punch. Vancouver is the same way with Daniel Sedin in the lineup. He stabilized their top two lines. The first three games, there was no sense of what was their top line. Suddenly, they go back to where now their third line is valuable as guys move back. Carter came in, to play with Richards, and that changed everything. The way others reacted, (Willie) Mitchell and (Rob) Scuderi picked things up. You hate to give up Johnson, but if you want a good player you have to give up a good player.
Q: You seem very up on player personnel, so maybe it’s not surprising that your name has come up as a candidate for the Montreal Canadiens’ GM job. What’s going on there?
A: They did talk to (Kings president) Tim Leiweke, but they’ve got a big list. I haven’t talked to them. I’ve talked to Tim, and for me, I’m comfortable here, I like what we’re building. I told Tim that I’d rather stay here and be part of this franchise when we win our first Cup. No matter, when the Canadiens talk to you, it’s flattering. But out of respect for them, it was better to decide not to go through the process. It wouldn’t be fair to them. I feel there’s something in me with the L.A. Kings now. It’s my team. We have a good thing going and I want to see it through.
Q: Do you get involved in personnel discussions with this team?
A: Not really. I’ll talk with Dean once and awhile, or with (assistant GM) Ron Hextall, about my opinion, but it’s definitely Dean’s decisions. We have a good streamline of communication with this organization. We have defined roles and we’re trying to get our franchise to that next level, one of the premiere franchises and we feel we’re on our way there. There’s a lot of work to do, but we understand what our role is.
Q: In the business side, do you feel you’re making a contribution, that this isn’t some ceremonial job they’ve handed to you?
A: I know my wife doesn’t think it’s ceremonial. I’m here every day, all day. It’s about building the aura and culture of this organization. We’ve had some great people. To sell out all those games, it’s a lot of work to do that in this town until you win and we’ve been working at it. Averaging 16,000 or 17,000 a year during a rebuilding process, that’s a lot of work, and a lot of fun. Building the brand inside the community, it’s been interesting. A great challenge and a great process.
Q: How does running a team from this end have anything in common from playing?
A: A team is a team. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a team concept, so I know that, if you’re going to win a Cup, your fourth line is as important as your first line. If that fourth line doesn’t produce . . . at one point you need them to win a big game. I brought that concept into the business side. Everyone’s important. I believe that’s the way to build. Obviously, as a player, you can have a bad game, wake up the next day and go to practice, and ready for the next game. You get a couple of goals and win, everything is great. In business, if you screw something up, it might take six months to figure out something. You have to be a little more strategic from that standpoint.
Q: What have you learned about yourself since taking over this role?
A: No one’s asked me that. The biggest thing is I can be a lot more patient. On the business side, things are more methodical. I used to plan my playing career that way, but it’s emotional on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think I’ve lost that edge, but in the business world, you’re whole life is different. We’ve learned if you move your sales cycles up six months, you’re six months ahead of the game all the time. I’ve learned a lot of strategic things like that. I’ve also learned that you have to enjoy every day. When I was a kid playing the game, it’s so great to still be involved in the game I love. But when I was a player I was so driven all the time, and I loved every moment, but I’m not sure I took the time to really enjoy it. Looking back, I was very intense.
Q: Did it take a long time to get up to speed on the business side?
A: I’m going to learn for the next 15 years. The good thing is I’m surrounded by people who are a lot smarter than me. That said, that’s the only way to win. On the ice, if you want to win, you surround yourself with better players, or those trying to be better than you. In business, the smarter the people around you, you’re going to go a longer way working together.
You can make mistakes and you’ve got to regroup. That’s why you have to be analytical and proactive. It happens. You have to make sure how to fix the problem.
Q: What kind of business sense did you have as a player?
A: I was always passionate about real estate. I went to school at Loyola Marymount for a few years (as a young player) – the teacher used to come into the locker room sometimes when we practiced at Culver City – but I was always curious and reading and it intrigued me. To tell you I’d end up here, I’d probably say no, but the timing was right and opportunity was there to do something special with the Kings and I jumped on it.
Q: During the lockout (of 2004-05) you also had some kind of ‘internship’ with Ed Roski (one of the Kings’ owners, involved in real estate development). What did you learn there?
A: I really spent a lot of time in his business, meeting everyone and learned a philosophy of how he ran a business. That was great for me to spend time with so many people. It made a difference for me, and it reinforced in me, that you can treat people well, and push people, but it’s not like in movies being a jerk screaming at everyone. You see people who have longevity in that world, they treat people well. Mr. Anschutz does that. You need intensity and high expectations, but if you treat people it lasts a lot longer.
Q: Do you watch more NHL games on TV or CNBC business shows?
A: Hockey is always on, it’s kind of crazy like that around here. But since I’m always trying to learn, you hear something on TV about how another team is operating, I’m more intrigued about what’s going on behind the scenes. I read a lot more about people in business, and about sports people in business. There are only so many hours in the day. You’re always catching up on emails. I try to get as much information about sports and hockey then I go around to other business world things.
Q: Here’s a number for you: How many Stanley Cup title teams have you played for?
A: One. That’s an easy number.
Q: And when you did, you took the Cup all through Los Angeles, Hollywood, the beach, a Dodger game . . . So the Cup has been through Southern California. Can you see that happening again?
A: Oh, for sure. We’ll have some fun with it. I know how many passionate people there are around town who’d love to see this. Some of the employees who’ve been around since the Forum days, and I know they love the Lakers and basketball but I know they’d love nothing more for us than to get the Cup.
Q: Does it kill you to know that the Ducks have won one of these already?
A: Does it kill me? I wish we’d have been the first team to win it, but good for them. (GM) Brian Burke did an amazing job at the time (2007). I’ll never forget when he got (Chris) Pronger and (Scott) Niedermayer, you get those two, good for them for pulling it off.
Q: The number of penalties and fines during the playoffs seems pretty high. Are people more into the games now with all the fighting and hitting going on?
A: It’s been unbelievable. The games are fun to watch. You can definitely tell the players are bigger and faster. We were talking to some hockey guys the other day, and that hit by (Phoenix’s) Raffi Torres on (Chicago’s) Marian Hossa – a lot of us have gotten hit like that in the past. Let’s face it, two years ago, that was considered a really good hit. Great hockey. Everyone would say that. The difference is the guy didn’t stay down. The game has just gotten so much faster the last couple of years. Two years ago, I got hit like that, would get a little wobbly, but I’d get up. Today, the guys are so big, it’s sad, Hossa really got hurt. It’s bad. Because of that we have to do something. You cannot leave your feet. I get it. (Torres) was coming too fast. Guys never could come that fast at you five or 10 years ago. The hits seemed just as big, but the impact wasn’t as much. The hockey stuck stuff with the crosschecking – you can’t do that. We have to take care of guys. But that’s what Darryl Sutter was talking about recently – this has been going on for years, but we weren’t on national TV every game, either. There weren’t as many camera angles on everyone. There were just three then, now there are six or eight. They’re catching everything. We didn’t get as much coverage. But that’s what we want now.
Players have to know if they get out of line, they’ll get suspended. No one wants to miss games. The hit Dustin Brown put on Henrik Sedin, that was clean as you can see. It’s close to that Torres hit. But he kept it low, shoulder to shoulder. But that’s the difference between one that’s legal and not. The league’s doing the right thing, analyzing things one shot at a time. Sometimes I think they should have been harder on this guy versus that guy, but we’re not in that room (watching and assessing and discussing the hits). It’s easy for me to say it’s terrible, but all (Brendan) Shanahan and his group are doing is watching plays every day. He’s not saying I want this team to win versus this team, he’s trying to do what’s right. They need to stay strong to what they’re doing. That job may sound fun at first, but you can’t please anyone. There’s always going to be someone mad at you. Like a referee.