The chances that your team will win the Stanley Cup are greatly increased when Larry Robinson is present on your bench.
He won six as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, another as the New Jersey Devils’ assistant coach in 1995, one as their head coach in 2000 and another as an assistant with the Devils in 2003. He’s been to the Cup Final 12 times as either a player or a coach over the last 40 years.
The San Jose Sharks have never played for a Cup, quite infamously inhabiting the role as the NHL’s chronic underachiever. (OK, at least in the Western Conference; the Washington Capitals bear that burden in the East.)
In fact, Robinson was added to the Sharks' bench in 2012 as associate coach after one such disappointment, moving over from the Stanley Cup runner-up Devils to take over a defense that Matt Shaw was overseeing to a first-round playoff loss.
Now ... oh, hey, what do you know: The Sharks are third in the NHL in defense (1.93 goals per game), coupled with the best offense in the League (3.73 goals per game … and those are just the ones that the referees saw!).
Oh, hey, what a coincidence: Goalie Antti Niemi posted the best goals-against and save percentages of his career last season, and could top both numbers this season.
“I don’t know about before, but when you think of ‘defense’ you don’t just think of the two ‘D’ in front of him. It’s a 5-man unit,” Robinson told us on Wednesday. “And we’ve played well in our own zone, and think a lot of our offense comes from being in a good defensive position.”
Robinson isn’t working miracles here like he did in New Jersey, where a patchwork of veterans and rookies coalesced into a championship-caliber unit in front of Marty Brodeur. He’s taken a team that was among the NHL’s best two-way squads and helped make it a bit better.
In front of Niemi, the Sharks are giving up 25.5 shots per game, down from 29 last season and 28.6 per game two seasons ago, before Robinson arrived.
“We’ve been able to keep our shots against down,” said Robinson.
His defensemen – the injured Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Jason Demers, Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart and Matt Irwin – skate between 19 and 22 minutes a night, filling situational needs but never breaking the clock on ice time. Vlasic, for example, could probably skate all night but has only cracked 22 minutes once this season.
“It’s because of our depth back there. All six guys can play, although maybe not in every situation, because some guys play in more offensive situations,” said Robinson.
It’s also a group that strikes the balance between old war horses like Boyle and Hannan and younger players like Braun and Irwin. “You gotta work your young kids in. Sooner or later, the older guys are going to slow down and can’t play as much,” said Robinson.
Ask Robinson, and there’s no slowing down Vlasic.
“He’s got a little bit of [Scott] Niedermayer in him, in that it seems like they can go forever on the ice. They’re both very good skaters, don’t get given credit for a lot of the things that do because they’re not always in the limelight,” he said.
That’s changed for Vlasic this season, as he leads a top three defense: He’s getting Canadian Olympic love and “most underrated defenseman” accolades from the media and peers.
How much of this is the Larry Robinson Effect? He’s far too humble to acknowledge it, passing the credit along to assistant coaches Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft for the way the Sharks are defending.
But this is what happens when Larry Robinson is overseeing your defense.
Well, this and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.