Buddy Robinson has never played this many NHL games in one season.
And yet, the journeyman forward has never played such a small amount of games — period — in one season either.
An organizational depth dude like Robinson would typically stay sharp in the minors while waiting for a call-up, but he’s spent the bulk of this one-of-a-kind campaign on the Calgary Flames’ taxi squad.
“It’s definitely a unique situation — the whole pandemic and this year has been unique on its own,” said Robinson, choosing his words carefully so it wouldn’t sound like griping. “You just have to stay ready. You’re put in a situation like that and they trust you as an older guy with some experience, a little bit in this league and a good amount in the American League, so they trust your experience and your ability to be a good pro and step in when they need you.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself in those first few games to make sure you’re ready to go and make it a seamless transition so the coach doesn’t have to worry about putting you out there in any situation. That was a big focus for me coming in.”
The coaches must be convinced because Robinson has been tapped for five straight dates — equalling his longest string of suit-ups at the top level. (In a season that has been short on reasons to celebrate, you have to feel good for the grinder.)
The 29-year-old right-winger has now logged a career-high nine appearances in The Show in 2021, but that also means he’s been a spectator/spare for 42 more.
Until recently, his dress-shirts had probably been dry-cleaned more often than his No. 53 jersey had required washing. (Oliver Kylington, Zac Rinaldo and Dominik Simon all know that feeling. Taxi-squaders travel with the team, so those gents have been tagging along all season despite seeing very limited action.)
“It’s just about being good energy, being a good teammate,” said Robinson, who will — for the first time in his pro career — go an entire campaign without any AHL outings. “Nobody is feeling sorry for you. Nobody is here to ask how things are going every day. We have a goal in mind here and that’s to win hockey games. So for me, it’s about being a good teammate, waiting for my opportunity and taking advantage of it when it comes.”
Robinson, a big lad at 6-foot-6 and 232 lb., is the sort of ’tweener who doesn’t take any NHL opportunity for granted.
He is closing in on 500 pro games, but only 21 of those have come on the biggest stage. He made his case for a 22nd with two shots on net and three hits — including a heavy thump on Trevor Lewis — in Wednesday’s 4-0 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Unlike his childhood pal Johnny Gaudreau, Robinson wonders on his daily commute to the rink if he’ll be in the lineup, or even if he’ll be practising with the full squad. Oftentimes, the cabbies skate separately in a small-group session.
Before this five-game run on the Flames’ fourth line, he’d been idle for nearly two months.
“He’s worked hard throughout his career — he’s played a lot of AHL games — and to see him get the opportunity this year to sign a one-way and be with us all year, he was excited but he knew he had some work to do,“ said Gaudreau, who had his high-school teammate and close friend crashing in his spare room for a chunk of this season. “It obviously wasn’t the year he wanted, he didn’t play too many hockey games, but now he’s going to do what he’s done throughout his whole career — fight a little adversity. Finally getting in the lineup, he’s going to play hard and he’s going to bring that juice for our team.
“It’s tough sometimes, not playing throughout the year, but he’s done a good job of coming in and making the most of it. He always has a smile on his face around the rink and the guys love him for that. He’s a great teammate, great friend and it’s great to see him rewarded.”
The Flames aren’t back in action until a Mother’s Day matchup with the Ottawa Senators at the Saddledome (6 p.m. MT, Sportsnet West/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).
By then, they could be into end-of-season auditions, ready to find out if Matthew Phillips or Adam Ruzicka — they tied for the team scoring lead with the AHL’s Stockton Heat — or one of their other prospects might be ready for primetime.
Robinson isn’t a kid anymore but after all those thankless hours on the taxi squad, he too is treating every shift like a tryout.
“I’m 29 years old, but I’d like to think I’m always getting better,” Robinson said. “I’m still making strides and I still have some miles on these legs, so I’d like to keep this thing going. Anytime you get an opportunity to play in the NHL, you can’t take it for granted. I’m going out there to prove myself, as well as help my team win. Anytime I can do that and be a part of it, it feels good and you just want to make sure you do enough to make sure you’re in the lineup the next game and the coaches have enough trust in you to keep you putting you out there.”