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.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.