When the NHL lockout ended earlier this month and professional hockey rosters settled into a renewed normalcy, Matt Robinson was finally getting significant playing time with Alaska of the ECHL.
Robinson, however, was disillusioned by his perceived misuse to that point. Alaska was the home of two NHL forwards who wouldn’t normally inhabit the roster, and Robinson was often forced to sit out in favor of their experience.
Robinson’s most recent time with Alaska allowed him a more prominent role, but by then the damage was done. Already in contact with Thunder coach Kevin McClelland about a return to Wichita, Robinson made the jump, rejoining the team with which he was the leading scorer over the last two seasons combined.
A two-time All-Star, Robinson brings an additional veteran presence to the Thunder and eases the sting of losing Chad Painchaud, second on the team in assists, to injury. Robinson joined the team last week on the road and was scoreless in two games.
“It was just kind of (bad) timing with the lockout,” Robinson said. “The coach (in Alaska) was still wondering why I was going to leave, because just before the lockout ended, the game before that I played first line and he had me on power play.
“But the thing is, I already kind of had my mind made up and we already had the ball rolling. A lot of people in Alaska were wondering why am I leaving with the lockout already ending, but there was more to it. The plans were already in motion for me to leave, anyway.”
Robinson joins the Thunder at seemingly the perfect time. After a six-game road trip on which it went 2-4, Wichita plays nine of the next 14 games at home with a chance to cut into first-place Allen’s six-point advantage in the standings.
Robinson brings star power to an inconsistent offense predicated on balance. He also provides power-play punch, boosting a unit on which he scored 17 goals the past two seasons.
In addition, Robinson hasn’t been worn down by the grind of a difficult first half. He played in seventeen games with Alaska, mostly sparingly, and his energy could help infuse a Thunder offense that has failed to top three goals in seven of its last nine games.
“It’s a new beginning, it’s a new start,” Robinson said. “I haven’t played many games, so I’m pretty fresh. Luckily I’ve been staying healthy throughout the season when I was playing. The more practice time, the more ice time, the better my cardio is going to get. For me, it’s a fresh start and a new beginning and a new team — but pretty much the same team.”
Some elements of the Thunder during Robinson’s initial stint are the same but some are different, particularly the players with whom he’ll try to forge an instant familiarity.
Forwards Thomas Beauregard, Alex Bourret and Aaron Davis are gone, and Robinson is playing mostly on a line with Neil Trimm, a former teammate in Laredo, and Ian Lowe. Robinson said getting back into playing shape will be his biggest obstacle, not learning to mesh with new teammates.
“The last two years I’ve been always with Aaron Davis and he’s a great playmaker, as well,” Robinson said. “I think Trimm will kind of fit in that role, and the same with Lowe. It’s exciting to play with new guys, always, and to see how you’re going to mesh and jell.”
However Robinson bonds with his new teammates, it’s likely to create a better experience than he had in Alaska. The chance to play at a slightly higher level was supposed to enhance his career, not set it back.
Returning to the spot where he’s had the best years of his career could get Robinson back on the right track. Being on any track at all is good enough at this point.
“There was a time where I didn’t play (in Alaska) for a month,” Robinson said. “Even when I was playing, I was the 10th forward and I wasn’t getting a chance on power play or anything. The guys on the team were nice and they were good, but it wasn’t the situation for me.”