At crossroads, Earl steps it up

by Heather Galindo || AHL On The Beat Archive

For the last five years, Robbie Earl has been hearing voices.

Coaches and management from Toronto to St. Paul to Houston have all had their say in how Earl can improve his game to stick in the National Hockey League.

“I’ve gone back and forth in the style of game I need to play,” said Earl, “and people tell me to do this and that — this is going to get you there, that’s going to get you there.”

But it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Drafted in the sixth round by Toronto, he spent half his career with the Marlies, getting in just nine NHL games. Then he was traded to the Minnesota Wild in 2009, and things looked more promising as he got 32 NHL games though six call-ups from the Houston Aeros last season.

But the Wild sent him to Houston at the end of training camp earlier this season. He got a six-game call-up in late November but came back to Houston with no points and a minus-3 to show for it.

It was then that the fast-skating forward, who helped the University of Wisconsin win a national championship in 2006, started listening to the voice that really mattered: his own.

“Still being in the American League, you try to change and try to get better and do what works and listen to people who impact your career, coaches and what not. I think I got away from myself a little bit, got away from my game,” Earl said.

“This year I just kind of want to get back to who I am. It’s not just offense like it was in college, but more of a spark offensively this year than most years. That’s deliberate.”

The difference is dramatic. In December and January, Earl was just shy of a point-per-game and is on pace for a career season with 16 goals and 21 assists in 52 games.

But more than the numbers, he’s shed the inconsistency that had been his Achilles heel as a pro and is now a dominant, noticeable force on every shift.

Aeros coach Mike Yeo said he thought Earl was a bit worn down at the start of the season, but since December, his game has gone to another level.

Yeo issued a challenge around Christmas: The team was at a crossroads and needed players who could “take the bull by the horns” and lead the team.

Earl heeded the call to arms. “I wanted to make an impact,” he said, and Yeo agrees that he has.

“Coming out of Christmas he was focused,” Yeo said. “He’s been a great leader for us going out and his work ethic has been phenomenal, first and foremost. And when the work ethic is there, the skill is going to follow.”

And even as his presence on the score sheet has cooled off in February, he continues to be a threat other teams can’t ignore. Linemate Chad Rau said he sees a difference in Earl’s confidence.

“He’s real strong on the puck and so he creates so much offence, obviously it helps me and whoever else is the other linemate,” Rau said. “He sets a good example — to continue to work on being strong on the puck and keeping it down low and just his ability to get in there on the forecheck and create turnovers just adds so much to our team.”

The rest of Earl’s story has yet to be written as he gets another shot at free agency this summer, but for now, his focus is on helping the Aeros make their way to a deep playoff run.

“It’s been a — I don’t want to say trying five years but it’s been kind of a back and forth, figuring myself out five years. I think now I kind of feel in my own and right where I want to be.”