July 10, 2011 :: 11:06pm ET Silencing the Mantra?
Los Angeles Kings fans have been begging and pleading for a prime time
left winger. Will former 40-goal scorer Simon Gagne be the one?
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Since July 1 of last
year, the Los Angeles Kings' fan base has echoed a mantra that's been
heard throughout the Southland. It's not so much a high pitch scream
as a deep, subtle chant that goes something like this:
"We need a ... LEFT WING!"
Not for lack of trying, Kings GM Dean Lombardi has tried and tried to
silence the noise and thought the job was done in the early days of
last July, but Ilya Kovalchuk had other ideas.
Lombardi realized early last season that Plan B, a one-year deal for
Alexei Ponikarovsky, wasn't going to result in a career resurrection
on the corner of 11th and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. When the
next move was to recall a dude named Dwight King from their Manchester
AHL affiliate due to an injury, star center Anze Kopitar started to
add up the number of left wings he played with and came to the
realization the total was rapidly approaching double digits.
Team captain Dustin Brown took the drastic step of going to head coach
Terry Murray and volunteered to switch to the left flank to solve the
dilemma, but that was scuttled after a handful of games.
Even I thought I heard that eerie refrain
as I sped past a deserted Staples Center as the Kings suffered another
loss in the midst of a dangerous mid-season losing streak that was
caused by a lack of scoring.
"We need a ... LEFT WING!"
When the Kings responded and got off the deck to get inside the Top 8
in the West down the stretch, Lombardi did the right thing (or is it
left) by plunging deep into the trade pool to solve the matter. By
surrendering a former first round pick who evolved into a projected
5/6 NHL defenseman (Colton Teubert), this year's first round pick and
a conditional 2nd round pick in next year's draft, Dustin Penner was
summoned from his self-imposed Edmonton exile as a result of the only
successful offer sheet (take note, Drew Doughty and Steven Stamkos)
since the lockout.
While he was the Oilers' leading scorer, most Oilers fans said,
'awesome, you can have him,' noting lackadaisical play and streaky
scoring that defined his Alberta run. Lombardi heard the whispers, but
was hoping that a return to a place of prior success and playing for a
contender would galvanize the big guy's stretch run. His 25 game
performance in Tinseltown begat a now famous quote by the GM,
suggesting that if improvement didn't come from Penner he'd wind up
playing slow pitch softball.
Not needing any further bad news, Lombardi got a rasher of it just
prior to the draft. Iconic Ryan Smyth came to him and said the Los
Angeles lifestyle got the best of him and his family and it was time
to return to beloved Edmonton. Not only did Lombardi suffer what's
likely the only occurrence of a player requesting a trade TO Edmonton
and those temperate -30 degree Celsius winters, but it effected the
only position on the team where he had weakness. It wasn't fourth line
"We need a ... LEFT WING!"
So, when the GM finally figured out a deal to grant Smyth his unique
wish (the deal isn't settled with Dean making public statements that
he has more trust in Bernie Madoff than Oilers GM Steve Tambellini),
it left him with a 23 goal wide hole in the one place he didn't need
As July 1 drew near, the GM had the prospect of the left side depth
chart filled by a player whom he verbally called out for motivational
and conditioning issues and a dude that played five (not missed,
PLAYED) games last year in Scott Parse.
More than one NHL source has told me that
Parse possesses top-six skill, but needs to overcome both injury and
With his options dwindling and the pressure to finalize a contending
roster growing by the day, Lombardi took what seemed to be the entire
Anschutz Entertainment Group management team including Governor Tim
Leiweke on a trip to Mecca.
Okay, it was really Mississauga, Ontario, to the offices of Newport
Sports and behind those doors was the solution to all his problems.
Brad Richards, the center whom the Dallas Stars were too broke to
re-sign, hit the market just a few minutes before the Kings SWAT team
hit those locked doors. Fortunately for the Kings, Mr. Richards was a
left-handed shot and with Lombardi savvy enough to acquire an All Star
center the Flyers had tired of in Mike Richards (still don't quite get
that one, trade Richards, sign Jagr, solve chemistry problems), the
newest Mr. Richards would be freed up from the shackles of playing the
pivot. He could reside in the tony enclave of Manhattan Beach, live
the good life, patrol left wing, get saucer passes from Kopitar and
become part of the Western Conference favorites.
On the way to the master plan, a pesky little thing called déjà vu
clicked in. A New York area metro team squeezed them out almost a year
to the day they missed on Kovalchuk with a curiously structured deal;
as word came down on the morning of July 2, those fateful words
reverberated north of the 49th parallel like you see in an episode of
the 1950s television series, The Twilight Zone.
"We need a ... LEFT WING!"
At this point, I'm about to disclose some confidential information I
received in the course of covering the Kings for the past 10 years.
I've been sworn to silence up to this point, but in the interest of
full disclosure, I feel the need to pierce the veil of secrecy.
Down the hall from Lombardi's office at the Toyota Sports Center sits
a glass enclosed case with the words, "Break In Case of Emergency."
While it's supposed to be used infrequently, there's been a lot of
glass breaking of past couple of years and the janitorial staff has
started to complain about the slivers that get strewn about. What's
inside is not a weapon or a deterrent, but something of great value to
the Kings hierarchy.
It's a notebook with the name and cell phone number of every player,
coach and scout who's worked for the Philadelphia Flyers over the last
Lombardi instructed one of his hockey
operations crew to pour over the notebook and come up with a name that
would fill the bill. Shjon Podein and John LeClair weren't a fit and
Murray Craven's phone was out of service. There was a guy who was a
former Flyer and did have recent history of injuries; as all Kings
fans know, that's a perfect spec to bring in a player for their team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning didn't see fit to bring back Simon Gagne after
one season; he posted the exact point total in his last two regular
seasons (17G, 23G), numbers didn't come close to career highs due to
games missed by injury. The optimistic fan will argue he closed the
regular season strong and produced 12 points in 15 games for the Bolts
before their conference finals elimination by the eventual champion
Boston Bruins, an easy thing to do in the summer time.
Though well liked by his teammates, GM Steve Yzerman chose to go in a
different direction, which opens him up to criticism of the departures
of Gagne and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim.
The 31-year-old resident of Quebec City looked at his available
options and the Kings floated to the top of the list. When LA's Brad
Richards pipe dream disintegrated (surely the Kings broadcast team
heaved a collective sigh of relief with a possible line combination of
Brad Richards-Mike Richards-Brad Richardson), they knew Plan B had to
be executed quickly.
"I'm excited to be here and welcome the challenge to come to this
young team. I've been to Los Angeles, but my wife has never been here
before so she's excited to come as we look for houses," Gagne
revealed, while admitting that all the Cheesesteak influence greatly
helps the transition. "The organization is familiar with my game and
that made it far easier to make a decision."
Many claim that West Coast teams lose out in free agency due to the
greater amount of travel. Gagne had the benefit of playing in the
Atlantic Division for 10 years and even with a bump in the miles
logged with Tampa in the Southeast, he makes a salient point about the
reality of time in the air.
"I looked at the schedule and saw the number of divisional games we
play," he said. "You've got Anaheim, San Jose and Phoenix; those are
really short trips. When I talked to Justin Williams and the coaches,
I really don't expect it to be that bad."
Simon had peaceful surroundings in the
hours leading up to choice of the next move in his professional
career; he built a beautiful home on a lake in the Quebec City area
where he and his wife Karine spend their summers with the kids,
Matthew (just getting his hockey moves down at 2) and Lily Rose, born
during the season on Feb. 14, the best Valentine Day's gift the Gagne
clan could receive.
To make the house a home, roaming around is a horse of a dog, a
Burmese Mountain Dog tipping the scales at 135 pounds. They own a home
in Philadelphia (rented a joint in Tampa), but when his playing days
are over, the lake home will be where the kids grow up. Simon
reflected on the aspects of raising a family given the demands of his
profession and conveys gratitude to have a supportive spouse.
"I met my wife a long time ago and I'm lucky to have such a great
woman at home to take care of the kids," Gagne admitted. "With the
game I play and the traveling like we do, sometimes it's hard to be
with the kids when you get home because you're tired. She gives me the
time to rest and get more energy, I give her a lot of thanks and I buy
her some good gifts once in a while." (Editor's Note: A sneak tip on
how to keep a wife happy.)
As we've learned recently, most NHLers take a week for themselves
after the last game is played and Gagne is no different.
"We're a beach couple; we like to go someplace warm once we're done.
It's a little different with the kids now, but we still do it."
Living in Tampa made it easier for Simon and family to roll down the
Causeway to Clearwater or St. Petersburg, but even in his Philadelphia
days, South Florida was the place to heal up for seven days.
"I like to lie down on the beach, drink some good wine, eat good
food," he said, "but with us going deep in the playoffs and having two
children, we decided to come back to Quebec City and visit with
family. Some players like to go to Europe; we're far more relaxed of a
While he's perfectly content on the Gulf and Atlantic beaches, the
move to California presents him with a greater likelihood to visit the
one vacation place he still needs to hit.
"Hawaii! I'm getting a lot closer now by coming to LA and that will be
the next trip at hopefully the end of a very long season next year,"
As the discussion progressed, I struck upon a topic that appears to be
a close, if not an equal, love to hockey for Simon.
"That's the tough thing about me, I love sports cars," Gagne revealed.
"I'm really, really good if I keep a car for a year."
We're not talking Camaros or Mustangs here, folks.
"I got a Porsche Convertible Turbo," he said. "If I keep it two years,
the car is going to be really lucky.
"Before I came to Tampa I had a Lamborghini Gallardo (MSRP, well, you
can't afford it) and I wasn't using it much so I traded it for a
Porsche Turbo Coupe. I got kidded a bit about the Gallardo in Philly
because it's yellow, but most of the guys are very passionate about
cars. When I got to Tampa, I realized I needed a convertible so I
traded the Porsche Coupe for the one I have now."
Lucky dude; he'll be able to keep the drop top for at least six months
given the Southern California climate. Maybe we can get an exclusive
on the next great Gagne sports car search come December?
"My wife tells me all the time that I spend too much money on sports
cars, but I have a truck that I drive almost every day; I just drive
the sports car once in a while."
Would it surprise you that the truck Simon slums it in is a Range
Rover? Me neither. Once he learns that you crawl, not zip around the
highways in Los Angeles, he'll have extra time to listen to tunes and
his taste runs up and down the musical spectrum.
"I got the iPod plugged in and just hit the playlist of the Top 100
songs I've listened to over the past two years," Gagne said. "Pearl
Jam, Nickelback. Metallica, Eminem, Puff Daddy, I like it all so it's
difficult to pick a favorite."
When he finally arrives home, he likes to sit down a great bottle of
wine and a juicy steak with a selection of cheese to end a perfect
Once dinner is done, you'd be lucky to get an invite to Simon's crib
to watch a TV or movie; he's installed a 100 inch screen that cascades
down from the ceiling in the basement viewing room. Not surprisingly,
Entourage was the first mention of a series he consistently watches,
but there's room for other favorites as well.
"I watch Modern Family, Lost, 24, The League and now with going to LA,
it's good that I'm already a fan of Californication."
He's tech savvy, as most of his viewing is done on the team charter on
an iPad, hinting that there may be a bit more use in this season.
While he digs the hardware, social networking is another story.
"I'm not on Facebook, and I'm not a Tweeter," Gagne divulged. "I'm
married and got two kids, I like my privacy. If it gets to a point
where all the players are using it, I'll probably do it, but I'm good
(You'll have to look for the second coming of Paul Bissonette
elsewhere, Twitter hockey fans.)
With a great off the ice life, we wondered how long it will be before
he will enjoy it full time. Simon not only addressed his future, but
the larger topic few players address, the expiration of the CBA after
"I'm 31 years old and signed a two-year deal, at the end of it I'd
like to sign another two- or three-year contract," Gagne made known.
"The CBA is going to have to be re-signed and hopefully we won't have
to go through seven years ago, sitting out an entire season. At this
point, I don't see any problems with the NHL, so I'm hoping the deal
will get done. If I can play until I'm 37, then I'll take it one year
at a time."
So Simon, no plans to be like your former teammate Mark Recchi?
"I would love to, but I don't think I'll be able to make it," he said,
laughing. "Mark's a really good friend; he taught me a lot of great
things when we were in Philly, so it's no surprise what he's done. I
see a little of myself in him because I followed in his footsteps,
it's incredible what he did this year. But 41 years old for me, it's
going to be tough."
The Kings have been re-built in fashion that can be defined in two
words: Old School.
If you're not going to play two-way hockey and be responsible in all
three zones, you're not for the Kings. While that's great for the
defensive zone and between the pipes, Los Angeles struggles to draft
and develop the big time scorer that elevates this team into serious
It's required the organization having to go into the not-so-free
market and acquire talent for a position that been a sore spot for
over a calendar year, but if Simon Gagne can revert to the prowess
he's demonstrated in Philly, the echoing emanating from the Santa
Monica Mountains may be altered to: