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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 center.

"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 it.

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 consistency issues.

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 decade.

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 couple."

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," he assures.

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 dinner.

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 for now."

(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 next season.

"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 contender status.

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:

"WE FOUND A ... LEFT WING!"

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Jul. 07, 2011 The Heat is On
Jun. 28, 2011 Mike Richards enters the Pacific
May 30, 2011 The Cup Comes Home
May 07, 2011 Jumbo Flavor
Apr. 05, 2011 Purple Rain
Mar. 17, 2011 Ya gotta have Hart
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