It's official: as noted yesterday, the Sharks have hired Hall of Fame defenseman and nine-time Stanley Cup champion Larry Robinson as an associate coach. It's reportedly a two-year contract, with the second being an option year. Robinson has served as the New Jersey Devils' assistant coach for several years now, after leading the team to their second Stanley Cup championship as a head coach in 2000, replacing Robbie Ftorek with eight games remaining in the regular season. He also coached the Devils to Game 7 of the Final the following year before losing to Colorado. Robinson was behind the Devils' bench for their run to the Final last month and was the subject of a great New York Times piece where New Jersey defenseman Bryce Salvador described him as "one of the most excited guys on the bench when we win...just the character he has and the experience, he's invaluable. He does a good job of helping everyone stay composed."
But before we get into what Robinson brings to the Sharks, the question lingering in the back of a lot of people's minds is what his hire means for the Sharks coaching staff as a whole and head coach Todd McLellan in particular. McLellan answered that question head-on in a conference call earlier today:
I'm very confident in the job that I do and that our staff brings to the organization. I think the players and management respect that. I was given every opportunity to be involved in the selection process. It was an organizational decision that I fully support. As a young coach in the league, I'm looking at ways to get better and I think that Larry is a great tool for our organiztion but also for Todd McLellan. It would be absolutely ridiculous if we had [someone like] Jacques Lemaire or Scotty Bowman and we weren't tapping these resources. What happens behind the scenes with phone calls to some of my mentors, you guys are never aware of. But the people I access for help on a daily basis, you would be surprised, and they would all be very capable of coming in and taking my job but I feel very confident in what I do and I feel very confident in the organization.
So with that out of the way, click past the jump for more analysis of this move.
So how does Robinson figure to help the Sharks? His role on the Devils' coaching staff was to manage every aspect of the team's defense at even-strength which he'll be tasked with handling in San Jose as well. And if the numbers are any indication, he performed splendidly in that role in New Jersey. Despite spending the post-lockout era steadily bleeding elite talent from their blueline like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin, the Devils have continued to be an elite defensive club under Robinson's watch, finishing 3rd, 1st and 4th in 5v5 shot suppression over the past three seasons. Age has taken a severe toll on goalie Martin Brodeur, who's done little more than take a giant dump in the Devils' net the past two regular seasons, providing the team with replacement-level goaltending at evens over that span. In spite of that, New Jersey's Robinson-coached defense has limited the impact of their atrocious goaltending and allowed them to continue being an above-average team at preventing 5v5 goals. Perhaps this says it all: New Jersey received worse team goaltending 5v5 last season than Steve Mason's Columbus Blue Jackets but still managed to tie for the eleventh-fewest goals against per 60 even-strength minutes in the league.
The Sharks' 5v5 defense as a whole has never really been a significant issue for the team, as they've consistently been among the best in the league at both shot and goal suppression at evens, but where Robinson could really have an impact is in serving as a mentor to San Jose's younger blueliners, another thing he excelled at as a member of the Devils coaching staff. From helping Marc-Edouard Vlasic improve his shot accuracy to refining Brent Burns' sometimes errant zone exits to getting Jason Demers back on track to being the top-four defenseman he showed flashes of for most of 2010-11 to ensuring Justin Braun doesn't slump in his third season the way Demers did to ushering in new faces on the blueline like Nick Petrecki, Taylor Doherty and Sena Acolatse, there's a ton of potential for Robinson to make an impact from a development standpoint. After all, this is the man who helped turn Andy Greene and Mark Fayne, two relatively unheralded collegiate defensemen, into the shutdown pair of a Stanley Cup finalist. Granted, attributing Greene and Fayne's unexpected success entirely to Robinson is a disservice to two obviously talented blueliners--a coach can really only do so much--but I doubt many around the league would have had the guts to deploy those two against the toughs, even if Robinson's hand was forced by Paul Martin's departure leaving the team without anything resembling a true #1 on the back end.
Of course, the primary motive behind the organization's decision to upgrade their coaching staff is almost certainly to improve the team's woeful penalty kill which finished 29th in efficiency last season and 24th the year prior. Robinson will be at least partially responsible for the Sharks' penalty kill this coming season. As John Fischer of In Lou We Trust said in the comments yesterday, however, it was Dave Barr and not Robinson running the New Jersey Devils' incredibly successful PK unit the past few seasons. But seeing as he was in charge of the team's defense as a whole, it's probably safe to assume Robinson had some degree of input into the team's shorthanded strategy. And a ridiculously successful strategy it was. Last season, the Devils allowed just 27 power play goals all season--and coupled that with an incredible 15 shorthanded goals to finish just -12 on the PK (the Penguins at -22 were the next closest team). While that kind of performance is obviously unsustainable in the long term (as the Devils themselves found out in the playoffs, when they posted a PK efficiency of 73.2%), New Jersey has been an elite penalty killing team for three years running:
|Team||Season||4v5 SA/60||League Rank||4v5 GA/60||League Rank|
4v5 SA/60 and 4v5 GA/60 are measures of the number of shots and goals, respectively, the team yielded in 4v5 situations per 60 minutes. The Devils have allowed fewer 4v5 goals per 60 than any other team in the league each of the past two seasons. They've also consistently been a top-five team in 4v5 shot suppression, finishing first in the league in 2009-10. Even if Robinson wasn't the architect of their PK system, it's safe to say he's aware of its inner workings as a firsthand observer and will probably look to adopt parts of New Jersey's aggressive shorthanded unit here in San Jose.
The Sharks have the best power play in the NHL and have been a top-ten 5v5 team each of the past five seasons (and were top-two three different times). The fly in the ointment, at least over the past two seasons, has undoubtedly been their penalty kill. If the Sharks had even just been league-average in terms of PK efficiency last season, they would have been 13 goals better on the year which translates to about four additional standings points (for comparison's sake, Tom Awad's VUKOTA projections estimate that Zach Parise and Ryan Suter combined make the Wild about eight points better in the standings next year--and this move didn't cost the Sharks $200 million). Even if Robinson isn't able to accomplish that, I don't see much of a downside in bringing aboard a legendary Cup-winning veteran behind the bench who has en elite track record as both a player and a coach. At the very least, it should ensure the franchise commands quite a bit more respect around the league.