Q&A: Luc Robitaille on Kings’ season, Ovechkin chasing Gretzky

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings from Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As the NHL brings the Stadium Series to Colorado Saturday night, it’s time to check what the conditions will be like at Falcon Stadium. It’s expected to be in the 20s F without any threat of rain or snow, which bodes well for the ice conditions, something that not just fans and media are checking.

“We’re more checking the weather for what we’re going to wear,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NBC Sports this week. “My theory on the ice is it’s the same for both teams, so you can’t use that as an excuse. We’re checking. I’m pretty confident at the time of the game we’re going to be fine. It might be a little bit colder. The whole thing of playing outdoors is what makes it so special.”

Robitaille is no stranger to outdoor games. He played in the 1991 preseason game between the Kings and Rangers outside of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and was in a management role with LA when they played Stadium Series games in 2014 and 2015 at Dodger Stadium and Levi’s Stadium.

We spoke with Robitaille this week ahead of Saturday’s Stadium Series game about where the Kings are in their rebuild, Alex Ovechkin‘s pursuit of 895 goals and more.

Enjoy.

PHT: For as difficult as this season has been and the last few weeks, how much can a game like this help morale. It’s still two points but it’s also a memorable experience for everyone involved.

ROBITAILLE: “Obviously we’d love to be at a different position, but it’s a great experience for our players. It’s a great opportunity to showcase our franchise. Mr. Anschutz, he’s from Denver, he’s done a lot with the Air Force Academy over the years. For us, to have an opportunity to showcase our franchise to be part of an outdoor game, we don’t take it for granted. We think it’s very, very special.”

PHT: Where is your dream outdoor game location?

ROBITAILLE: “Right on the beach. That would be something special. Right in Santa Monica where you see the [ferris wheel] right in the back, right by the pier.”

PHT: Where would you say the organization is in this phase of turning things around? Close to where you and [GM] Rob Blake want it to be?

ROBITAILLE: “Obviously, what people write is what people write. The proof is in the pudding. In 2017-18 we said we weren’t going to trade any draft picks moving forward until we had a chance to reload knowing we had a lot of contracts expiring at the end of this season. We haven’t traded anybody, but we really started to recreate the way our organization is last year. We find ourselves today with a lot of different [media outlets] naming our organization the No. 1 prospect pool.

“I like what our guys are doing. It does take time to build it right. We’re not trying to build our team to compete, we’re trying to build our team to give us a chance to win the Cup. To do that you’ve got to be patient and there’s going to be some growing pains. But if we do it right and we’re patient and do the right job in developing our players… we’re sitting in a good spot right now.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

PHT: How do you balance that patience and with the pressures of quickly trying to build a contender?

ROBITAILLE: “We’re lucky that we have guys like Drew [Doughty] and [Anze Kopitar] and [Jonathan Quick] that are very high character, they know how to win, they know what it takes, and they can really teach these kids what it takes to win. A lot of times when you start that, take Toronto, they didn’t have any of those guys. And we’re starting with those guys, so that gives us a huge jump on everyone.

“We’re pretty comfortable that once these kids starts coming, we already had a few this year, our team should be performing better. Now there’s going to be some growing pains, they’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to lose some tough games. This year there’s many games we thought we deserved a better fate. It didn’t happen and now we find ourselves where we are. At the same time we had to change our entire system, the way we play, and that’s a hard thing to do. Last time around I think it took us three years to learn the system we ended up winning the Cup with and we’re at Year One right now.”

PHT: Who’s one of the younger players that might be off the radar that you’re high on going forward?

ROBITAILLE: “When you want to build a team it’s always about character, and when you watch Blake Lizotte, the way he approaches every practice, everything he does, every game, is the way we want to be as a team. To me, if we have everybody coming in, regardless of their height, their skating ability, their skill, if everybody plays as hard as him we’re going to be really, really tough to beat.”

PHT. You’re almost three years into the job as president. What have you learned about that role that maybe you didn’t know when you were in business ops?

ROBITAILLE: “I kind of knew it, but it’s reiterated everyday, you’ve got to really trust your people. You’ve got to make sure you stick to what you believe and what the plan is. It’s so important to reiterate and to stick to what our beliefs are as an organization. It’s hard because sports is hard. Every game is hard and we get emotional. But at the same time it’s very important that we stick to something that we believe is going to get us to the right place. It’s hard to do everyday because no one likes to lose and no one likes to underperform.”

PHT. You were one of the number of NHL greats who Alex Ovechkin passed in goals this season (Ed. note: Robitaille finished with 668). Are you surprised that he’s been able to be so consistent at scoring goals for this long?

ROBITAILLE: “If you look at the player and watch him play, no. But to say 10 years ago is this guy going to keep doing it every year, I would be lying to say that he’s the one guy. I never, ever thought we would ever be able to say I think this guy has a chance to catch Wayne Gretzky. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that. And now, we’ve got a player that, if everything goes the right way, has the opportunity to do something absolutely incredible and it would be the greatest thing for our game if he could get anywhere near it.”

PHT: It’s quite amazing with his style that he’s been able to stay incredibly healthy throughout his career.

ROBITAILLE: “Yeah, I think it’s amazing. I’m going to knock on wood for him because I think it’s incredible. It does take luck. All it takes sometimes is you get hit by one slapshot and you can be out for six weeks. It’s pretty amazing that he’s been able to last for so long and be resilient because he plays really hard.”

PHT: Do you think he can break Wayne’s record?

ROBITAILLE: “I think so. I’m not sure we’ll ever see it again. It’s hard to figure out someone that would do it. I’m going to enjoy this ride because it’s special. It’s very special and this is something that’s really good for our game. I’m rooting for him that he does it because it’s going to be absolutely incredible.”

MORE STADIUM SERIES:
Improved depth makes Avalanche Stanley Cup contender
L.A. Kings approach key stages of rebuild

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will call the matchup. On-site studio coverage at Air Force Academy will feature Kathryn Tappen hosting alongside analyst Patrick Sharp and reporter Rutledge Wood.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Polak, Canucks’ Baertschi won’t report to NHL camps

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Dallas defenseman Roman Polak and Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi on Saturday joined the list of players who won’t be reporting to training camp for the resumption of the NHL season.

Baertschi told the Canucks he’d be opting out of participating in the expanded 24-team playoffs, following Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic informing the Flames he won’t be playing because of family reasons. Polak is not on the Stars’ roster for the start of training camp Monday, and a team spokesman said the 34-year-old veteran won’t be attending at this time.

Polak is a pending free agent who last month agreed to a deal in his native Czech Republic next season and told reporters there he wasn’t planning on returning to the NHL if play resumed. Baertschi, who spent much of this season in the minors, is under contract through 2020-21.

”Sven informed us late yesterday that he has chosen to opt out of the NHL return to play program,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ”It was a difficult decision but ultimately one we respect and understand.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning won’t have captain Steven Stamkos at 100% for the opening of camp because of a lower-body injury, but they’re optimistic he’ll be ready when games get under way in early August. GM Julien BriseBois said Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

While Stamkos has a better chance of being ready for Tampa Bay’s next game than he would have after surgery if the playoffs had started in mid-April, the Flames will have to cope without Hamonic when they open their series against Winnipeg on Aug. 1.

Hamonic became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

The Minnesota Wild, who face the Canucks in the qualifying round, ruled out defenseman Greg Pateryn indefinitely with an upper-body injury. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday the league will be taking over injury and illness disclosure from teams as a way of protecting player privacy.

Lightning’s Stamkos injured again at start of training camp

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Captain Steven Stamkos will be limited at the start of Tampa Bay Lightning training camp because of a new lower-body injury.

General manager Julien BriseBois said Saturday that Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts. Stamkos is expected to be ready for the start of the NHL’s expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs in early August.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

Unlike Stamkos, the Calgary Flames won’t have defenseman Travis Hamonic for the resumption of the hockey season after he decided to opt out for family reasons. Hamonic on Friday night became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

Flames’ Hamonic is first player to opt out of NHL’s return

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Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has been the first player to opt out of the NHL’s Return to Play program.

“Earlier this evening Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifier and Playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round.”

[Full Stanley Cup Qualifying Round schedule]

As part of the RTP plan that was ratified Friday evening, any player can opt out without penalty by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

In a statement posted through his agent’s Twitter account, Hamonic cited a respiratory virus his young daughter battled last year and the recent birth of his son as the reasons why he will not be joining the Flames.

“My family has and always will come first,” he said. “Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”

The 29-year-old Hamonic, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, played 50 games for Calgary this season. He recorded 12 points and was second the team in average ice time per game (21:12) behind Mark Giordano.

The Flames will face the Jets in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series in the Edmonton hub

MORE:
NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement

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The NHL and NHLPA made the return official: hockey is back.

Remarkably, the NHL and NHLPA also extended the Collective Bargaining Agreement through at least 2025-26, ensuring almost unthinkable labor peace for fans. None of this means that COVID-19 won’t wreck the party, but the NHL and NHLPA cemented those return details on Friday.

The timetable for the NHL return won’t leave much room to breathe. Players can opt-out of a return-to-play plan for a variety of reasons, but must make such decisions by Monday, July 13 at 5 p.m. ET.

This comes shortly after the two sides announced a memorandum of understanding earlier this week. The NHL attempting a two-city, 24-team playoff plan is bold enough; extending the CBA through at least 2025-26 makes this an incredible achievement. For hockey fans who’ve grown accustomed to lockouts, lasting labor peace feels almost unthinkable.

If hockey fans need more reasons to be ecstatic, consider this. The CBA extension sets the stage for NHL players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. That decision hinges on an agreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee, but this is a landmark day for the future of the NHL.

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

Read more about the NHL return via this official document:

NHL playoff hubs in Edmonton and Toronto; 2020 Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton

After many twists and turns, Edmonton and Toronto were named as the two hub cities. Each city will host 12 teams (limited to 52 personnel apiece). Edmonton will hold the 12 Western Conference teams, and is also the planned spot for the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the 12 Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto.

With COVID-19 spikes in areas like Las Vegas and protocol stumbles in Vancouver, it’s been difficult to forecast which cities would serve as the two hubs. Now we know. Edmonton, in particular, has avoided the worst of COVID-19 outbreaks. Toronto’s dealt with more struggles (see: the outbreaks in Ontario in the map below), but brings some strengths for the NHL while not being hit as hard as many problem areas in the U.S.:

Alberta with 8,482 cases; Ontario with 36,178 as of Thursday (via the Canadian government)

[More on Edmonton and Toronto serving as NHL playoff hubs.]

Now, for the when: Key Dates for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL Free Agency, Draft

So, we just covered the “where” for the NHL’s playoff return to award a 2020 Stanley Cup. Let’s cover the “when.”

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out
July 26: Teams report to their hub city
July 28-30: Exhibition games
Aug 1: Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4)
Aug 10: Phase 2 of NHL Draft Lottery to determine No. 1 overall pick
Aug 11: First Round begins
Aug 25: Second Round begins
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded
Oct. 9-10: 2020 NHL Draft (must follow end of Cup Final and take place before free agency)
Mid-Oct.: free agent period opens
Nov. 17: Training camps open for 2020-21 season
Dec. 1: 2020-21 NHL season begins

All of dates listed are, of course, tentative.

[Want even more details on critical dates for the NHL return? Click here.]

CBA extension keeps NHL salary cap flat for at least 2020-21

NHL, NHLPA hammer out a CBA extension, including flat salary cap and return to Olympics

Again, these agreements don’t just cover a playoff format where the 2020 Stanley Cup would be awarded. The CBA extension means lockout prevention through 2025-26, and possibly even 2026-27. That CBA extension sets the stage for the NHL’s return to the Olympics, pending an agreement with the IOC.

Consider some of the high points. You can read more about the flat cap and other financial details here.

  • It’s possible that the two sides could extend the CBA for one additional season (through 2026-27).
  • The two sides agreed to a flat $81.5 million salary cap for 2020-21.
  • That $81.5 million mark could also stick for multiple seasons. It all hinges on whether or not revenue bounces back — and when.
  • Players hate escrow, so limiting its impact was key. There will be a 20-percent cap on escrow for 2020-21. From there, escrow will scale down until it drops to six percent.
  • The two sides agreed to bring NHL players back to Olympic competition — pending negotiations with the International Olympic Committee. If that goes through, NHL players would participate in 2022 Winter Olympics (in Beijing) and the 2026 Winter Olympics (in Milan).
  • Players will defer salary to account for the financial impact of COVID-19.
  • The CBA extension accounts for certain salary cap loopholes. In short, contracts won’t be as front-loaded, salary bonuses won’t be greatly changed, and no-trade clauses will be honored more faithfully.

So, again fans: rejoice, and hold your breath. Maybe cross your fingers, too — especially in hopes that this process happens as safely as possible. This is huge stuff, and PHT will cover the developments as they unfold.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.