Gaining Comfort Level in NHL During 2nd Full Season, PU Alum Robinson Sees Playoff Action for Columbus
ON PACE: Eric Robinson, left, battles a foe in action for the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL. Former Princeton University men’s hockey star Robinson ’18 tallied seven goals and five assists on 50 regular season games and then added a goal in postseason play as the Blue Jackets topped the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 3-2 in a best-of-five Qualifying Round Series and then lost 4-1 to eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in an Eastern Conference First Round Series. (Photo provided courtesy of Columbus Blue Jackets)
By Justin Feil
Eric Robinson has gone back to training as he prepares for his third full season of NHL action.
The 2018 Princeton University graduate enters the next few months build-up to training camp with a bigger sense of confidence following an encouraging, albeit unusual, 2019-20 campaign.
“It’s so big in sports and hockey,” said Robinson. “You can feel and it and see it when you’re not confident and you’re playing tight and you’re thinking when you get the puck rather than just playing and reacting. It’s everything. Relaxing a bit and realizing I have a few games under my belt and I belong and can relax and just play. It’s huge for your game. That’s the biggest takeaway going into next year that I can be a little more relaxed and focus on just playing.”
Robinson signed a two-year deal in 2018 with the Columbus Blue Jackets at the close of his senior season with Princeton. He played a game in the 2017-18 season weeks after the end of his college career, then appeared in 13 games in 2018-19 before playing 50 games this season plus his first playoffs.
“It’s something you dream of – first to play in the NHL, and then growing up watching hockey and playing hockey, you know how intense the NHL playoffs are,” said Robinson, a 6’2, 201-pound native of Bellmawr, N.J.
“It was really cool to be a part of it. We wanted to go further and that’s the goal for the future and years to come, to go further and keep experiencing more. It’s a different intensity and every mistake can be costly and every play, you have to be dialed in at a different level.”
Robinson’s speed stands out when he plays, and the Blue Jackets see it as a valuable tool that will only get more dangerous as his shooting and puck-handling develop. He scored his first career playoff goal in the third period of Game 3 in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their Eastern Conference First Round Series. After winning their best-of-five Qualifying Round series over Toronto in five games, Columbus ended up falling 4-1 to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning in the best-of-seven series, the team that they knocked out with a first-round upset a year ago.
“We’re a resilient group,” said Robinson, who tallied seven goals and five assists in regular season action.
“People were counting us out before last season started, and all year we kept in a playoff spot and stayed relevant and got really hot at a lot of times throughout the year. We’re a hard-working group that I think is going to be hard to knock out or knock around or say ‘They’re not going to be relevant come playoff time next year.’ With another year of experience for a lot of guys on the team – there were a lot of injuries and a lot of guys had to step in, including myself, to fill roles – and that’s big for the organization and team to have all that experience throughout the depth chart. That’s something that will help the team take another step next year.”
Robinson was even in the plus-minus rating while playing 122 shifts over 10 playoff games once the NHL restarted following a pause on March 12 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL jumped right back into games and picked up the playoffs at the start of August without any regular-season games.
“That would have been the weirdest part,” said Robinson. “In regards to the offseason and training, it almost felt like a normal offseason with the length of the break and then people slowly starting trickling into Columbus for a few weeks, skating and training and then camp starts. In that sense, it felt pretty normal compared to an offseason. The weird part was how meaningful the games were right when you jumped in. Right off the bat, it’s playoffs. We knew that and that was discussed. Honestly every team was facing that same challenge of being prepared right off the bat, and I think we did a good job of that.”
Playing left wing for the fourth line for the Blue Jackets, Robinson was one of the players who came back strong from the break, navigating through the unusual circumstances.
“It’s something that no one’s ever dealt with,” said Robinson. “We were no exception to that. It was kind of scary and weird. I didn’t have a place of my own so I was splitting time between my brother’s and my girlfriend’s. I was trying to stay as busy as possible. Obviously there wasn’t much to do. I ended up getting a place of my own so that was good for the second half of quarantine, at least having a spot. It was trying to stay as busy and active and healthy as possible.”
Luckily, Robinson found a spot in his native New Jersey and resumed training as soon as it was possible. When he returned to the restarted season with the Blue Jackets, he had a hat trick in one scrimmage and two more goals in another.
“I was in a pretty fortunate situation,” said Robinson. “When guidelines started becoming a little less strict and things started opening in the month of June, at least privately I was able to pop on the ice two times a week and then get in the gym, just two or three of us a day, and then have the ice to ourselves and work on our skills. I’m sure a lot of guys had that across the country and world, wherever everyone was, but it was good for me. After the couple months of downtime and nothing to do, it felt like more of a regular offseason getting into the gym and on the ice.”
Aside from training, Robinson found himself doing a lot of the same things that others without school and jobs did. He played Fortnite, but with an added benefit. Robinson and his brother, Calgary Flames wing Buddy Robinson, teamed up to do some charity work with the video game sensation. They partnered for a close family friend who was involved in the American Cancer Society and whose husband had coached Buddy.
“We were thinking of different ways we could bring awareness to cancer research and the American Cancer Society and Coaches vs. Cancer,” noted Robinson.
“Right now, video games and streaming are a big thing in today’s world. And people are raising and making a lot of money through video games so we figured if we’re going to play Fortnite every day we might as well stream it and try to raise a little money for fighting cancer.”
The first tournament that the Robinson brothers played in was streamed and the public could interact and donate. They later entered another fundraising tournament among NHL players. “We didn’t do too well in that,” said Robinson.
Robinson did better on the ice when the NHL returned to action. The teams came back to a different setting with games in Edmonton and Toronto without fans being permitted with the players having to adjust to the bubble environment for their biggest games of the season.
“The NHL did a really good job,” said Robinson. “The buildings looked pretty cool and they had the noise. When I was in play, physically on ice, it felt as normal as a regular game. You’re focused and it’s pretty intense and it’s pretty quick so you’re just focused on making the right play. The only time you really notice is when there’s a big hit or someone hits the post, the crowd noise isn’t quite as loud as it would be in a normal game. I think it’s louder on television. That’s the only time you’d really notice that no one was there. Other than that, it was fairly normal.”
Players had to deal not just with playing in the same two arenas, but also the sudden jump into the playoffs. It was Robinson’s first experience in the postseason.
“You try to block it out and play as normal as possible and stick to knowing what you can do and what you’re meant to do to help the team,” said Robinson.
“Really you don’t have to do anything more. At the same time, you know every play and every inch is very important. It’s just that extra level of focus and intensity that you have to prepare to have.”
It’s another level of experience that Robinson gained this season. He has made steady improvements each season since his Princeton career ended. Finding a regular role with the Blue Jackets this year and being a part of the playoff roster are important steps forward as he solidifies his place in the NHL.
“It’s back to the normal offseason now; I took a few weeks off and now it’s right back to working out and skating and a normal offseason,” said Robinson.
“I’m making sure I’m even in better shape and stronger and faster and more ready, not getting complacent because I think I might have a spot, whether I do or not. It’s going into camp and proving and showing that I’m going to continue to take strides and I’m not going to get complacent. Hopefully that translates to the game and the play and the numbers and my play continues to improve.”