Larry Robinson’s name is on the Stanley Cup 10 times — he won it six times as a player, three times as a coach and once as an executive. The Hall of Famer knows a good defenseman when he sees one, and at least two, Victor Hedman of the champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars, caught his attention, and then some, during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
A beast at both ends of the ice, Hedman was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the player voted most valuable to his team during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Robinson won the award in 1978 following the Montreal Canadiens’ third of four consecutive championships.
Hedman finished fifth in scoring during the postseason with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists), was tied for third with a plus-13 rating (which led all defensemen), and seventh in average ice time (26:28) in 25 games.
Heiskanen was similarly brilliant for the Stars. His 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) ranked third in the NHL, and he was plus-8 while averaging 25:58 of ice time in 27 games.
Robinson, at home in Bradenton, Florida, took special note of Hedman and Heiskanen as he watched the Final unfold at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Both earned high marks from the six-time all-star who never once missed the playoffs, making 17 consecutive trips with the Canadiens between 1972-73 and 1988-89, then three more with the Los Angeles Kings from 1989-90 to 1991-92.
Robinson is the NHL’s all-time plus/minus leader at plus-722.
“If you were to ask the Lightning players, this guy has been their tower of strength for a number of years,” he said of Hedman, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2018.
Robinson won the Norris in 1977 and 1980.
“The way everything played out, Victor was scoring big goals at the right time and he played huge, huge minutes. What did he play, over 50-some minutes (57:38) in that five-overtime game against Columbus (in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round)?”
Then, with a laugh, Robinson said, “They showed him on TV a lot of times and he was just sitting there, looking like he wasn’t even tired. I guess it kind of helps when you’re 6-foot-6 and you can reach from one side to the other.
“They could have given the Conn Smythe to at least a few guys on Tampa. It seemed that every time Brayden Point scored a goal, they won (three of Point’s NHL-leading 14 goals were game-winners). Nikita Kucherov definitely could have won it, and Tampa doesn’t get to where they are without [goalie Andrei] Vasilevskiy. Any of them would have been a good choice, but I’m happy for Victor. He’s a good kid.”
Robinson doesn’t know Hedman well, but he impressed him “as a perfect gentleman” during the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game festivities in Los Angeles when the then 27-year-old native of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, spent generous time with Robinson’s grandsons chatting and signing autographs.
“To me, Victor epitomizes the way a defenseman should play — it’s not just all about points, even though he did get his share of them,” Robinson said. “He was a tower of strength in the D-zone as well during the playoffs. With that long reach, I thought he used his stick really well, jumped into the play when the time was right, and scored some very, very important goals.
“I’m a big proponent of using every inch that you’ve got. With his reach he poke checks guys, like I did a lot. I might have been a little more physical, but I think his offensive skills are maybe a little better than mine were. I was a good skater, and he certainly is that.”
In Heiskanen, a native of Espoo, Finland, Robinson sees an enormous talent that hasn’t yet begun to fully bloom.
“He’s 21. Can you imagine what he’ll be like when he becomes a man?” Robinson said, laughing again. “My God, he hasn’t yet fully matured. He’s going to get bigger and stronger. Right now, he sees the ice as well as anybody in the League, passes well and defends well. Because he’s only 190 pounds, at times he can get muscled off the puck, but he’s not intimated. Every team that played against him tried to run him out of the game, but he just kept coming back.
“He played extremely well. If he continues as he is and stays healthy, I see him winning the Norris Trophy one day. He has good enough skills to do that.”
For now, Robinson is between assignments, his contract with the St. Louis Blues having expired at the end of this season. He joined the Blues on Sept. 21, 2018, as senior consultant of hockey operations, doing plenty of work with their defense en route to the 2019 Stanley Cup championship. He had spent the five previous seasons with the San Jose Sharks as associate coach and director of player development.
With the 2020-21 NHL season not yet set, the 69-year-old is in no rush to sign a new contract “just for the sake of doing it. Hopefully, I’m at that point in my life when I can pick and choose, but I’d love to stay connected with hockey since it’s been part of my life forever.”