EL SEGUNDO, CA — Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi was not what one would consider to be truthful on June 26, when he said that the Kings would not be interested in pursuing the top players in the unrestricted free agent market.
“It’s safe to say that there’s a potential for a midrange move,” he insisted.
As it turned out, Lombardi hoodwinked the media into believing that. But once the July 1 signing frenzy began, it became obvious that his sights were set much, much higher.
Indeed, when the 9:00 AM Pacific time opening of the free agent frenzy began, Lombardi, Kings Governor and President/Chief Executive Officer of the Anschutz Entertainment Group Tim Leiweke, the Kings coaching staff, and others were already in Mississauga, Ontario, where they made a live, in-person presentation to the prize of the 2011 unrestricted free agent class, center Brad Richards, and his agent, Pat Morris, at the headquarters of Newport Sports Management.
To be sure, the Kings went all out to get Richards, but, as expected, he signed a heavily front-loaded nine-year contract worth $60 million with the New York Rangers, reuniting with head coach John Tortorella.
Richards reportedly accepted less money from the Rangers than some of the other offers he received so that he could play for Tortorella, who coached Richards when both were with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Kings reportedly offered Richards a nine-year deal, valued at $60-$65 million.
While they lost out on Richards, unlike last year, when the Kings went all out for superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk but could not sign him, Lombardi had a Plan B this year, signing left wing Simon Gagne to a two-year contract worth $7 million.
Gagne, 31, will be paid $4.5 million this season, and $2.5 million in 2012-13. The salary cap hit is $3.5 million per year.
Last season, the 6-1. 193-pound native of Sainte Foy, Quebec scored 17 goals and added 23 assists for forty points with a -12 plus/minus rating and twenty penalty minutes in 63 regular season games with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In the playoffs, he was a solid contributor, scoring five goals and tallying seven assists for twelve points, a +6 rating and four penalty minutes in 15 games, helping lead Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Gagne has scored forty or more goals twice in his career, and thirty or more four times. His best season came in 2005-06 with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he scored 47 goals and added 32 assists for 79 points, with a +31 rating and 38 penalty minutes in 72 regular season games. His best playoff year was in 2009-10, when he helped lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals, with nine goals and three assists for twelve points in 19 playoff games.
Gagne, who was selected by the Flyers in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1998 National Hockey League Entry Draft, has played in 727 career regular season NHL games, scoring 276 goals and adding 288 assists for 564 points with 298 penalty minutes. He has also scored 37 goals and has contributed 22 assists for 59 points in 105 NHL playoff games.
Gagne was twice named to play in the NHL All-Star Game (2001 and 2007), and made the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2000. He has also represented Canada at the Olympics in 2002 (gold medal) and 2006.
Knowing that they still need to add some skill to their top six wingers, bringing Gagne into the fold was a priority for the Kings.
“It was fairly important for us,” Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall told the media shortly after the signing was announced. “We’ve looked at the trade market, and there’s not a lot there. Quite frankly, after yesterday on the free agent market, there wasn’t a ton there, but this was a guy we had our eye on from the start, if we didn’t get Brad Richards.”
“We moved as quickly as we could,” Hextall added. “Obviously the familiarity with people in our organization—[head coach] Terry Murray, [assistant coach] John Stevens, myself, Dean and, particularly, his relationship with [newly-acquired center] Mike Richards, both on and off the ice—were factors in him coming to LA.”
The Kings contacted Gagne and his agent early on July 1, while they were wooing Richards.
“Yesterday, [Gagne and his agent] were talking to some teams, and LA was one of the teams that called us really early on Friday to let us know that I was on the top of their list,” Gagne explained. “But, at the same time, they were honest with us. They were waiting to see what was going to happen with Brad Richards.”
“At the same time, we were looking at something else with other teams, but, this morning, when Richards signed, they called back,” Gagne elaborated. “I was very excited when I got the phone call from my agent that we had a deal.”
Gagne’s top priority was to re-sign with the Lightning, who lost to the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“My priority was to get a deal done with Tampa Bay before July 1,” he noted. “We had some talks with them a couple of days before July 1, but nothing really ended up like [either side wanted]. At the end, even today, we heard nothing from them, so we guessed they were out of the picture at that time. We worked with other teams, and we ended up with the choice we wanted to go with—the Kings.”
“I enjoyed my time in Tampa Bay,” he added. “I had a lot of friends there, but it was time [for a] change.”
With his hopes for a return to Tampa Bay dashed, Gagne’s top choice was the Kings, even though several teams were bidding for his services.
“You’re ready to be signed on the first day [of the free agency signing period], but, one the other side, we were confident that we had to wait for the right moment, the right team, and the right fit for my family,” said Gagne. “We had some offers early [on July 1], but nothing like what we were looking for.”
“We knew that a lot of teams [were waiting for Brad Richards to sign on July 1], but a lot of teams were really interested in signing me,” added Gagne. “But we knew we had another option, too. So we took a chance to wait and see what happened today. We knew we had some teams we talked to last night. We had some good offers on the table, and that allowed us to be more patient, and get a deal done with LA when it was a good time.”
Gagne knows Kings right wing Justin Williams and, as Hextall stated, Mike Richards, very well from their days with the Flyers.
“Those two guys definitely helped me to make the decision to come to LA,” Gagne noted. “I’m really good friends with Justin. We kept in touch when he got traded to Carolina. We came into the league almost the same age, we’re really close, really tight. We keep in touch all year long.”
“He [sent me a text message] yesterday, [saying] that LA could be a good fit—they were looking for a left winger,” Gagne added. “He was pushing for me to sign in LA. It’s always fun to hear stuff like that.”
Gagne played three years on the same line with Mike Richards in Philadelphia.
“When Mike came into the league, I was playing more with [superstar center] Peter Forsberg,” Gagne said. “As we all know, Forsberg was playing, maybe, fifty games a year. The other thirty games, Mike as a rookie, was my centerman. I played with him at least five years, but on the same line for two or three years.”
“I had a chance to talk with Mike Richards this morning,” Gagne added. “Same thing on his side. He said that we could play on the same line, and do all the good stuff we did in Philly. That got me a excited, a little bit.”
As Hextall mentioned, Gagne is very familiar with the Kings coaching staff and front office, which should make the transition to his new team far easier than it might otherwise be.
“Murph [Murray] coached me in Philly,” he said. “[Assistant coach] John Stevens, Ron Hextall, and Mr. Lombardi [were all in Philadelphia], too.”
“It’s almost like Philadelphia on the West Coast,” he joked. “I had some great seasons with those two coaches. Murph was more in charge of the defensemen when I was in Philly, but John was the head coach for two years.”
“When you change teams, sometimes you need to adjust to the coach. I feel that I know those guys already. Like I said, I was joking that it’s almost the Flyers of the West Coast. All those guys were with the Flyers before. I was part of the same team, I had some great moments with them, and I’m excited to be able to work with them.”
Gagne also noted that the Kings have coveted him since last season also played into Gagne‘s decision.
“They were looking to get me even last year, when I was ready to waive my no trade clause [at the trade deadline],” he said. “That was one of the teams that was really pushing to get me. I know this is a great fit for me.”
Gagne has been his injury-prone throughout his career, and has had several concussions. Last season, he suffered a groin injury and a neck injury, and missed 19 regular season games, along with three games during the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Washington Capitals due to a head injury.
Despite that, the Kings believe that Gagne is worth the gamble.
“There’s risk with every player,” Hextall explained. “You always analyze the risk versus reward. Obviously, with the amount of money that goes into it, and the cap space, you look at the injuries, and we felt that the reward was worth the risk.”
“I think the one thing about Simon is that he’s always been a big-game player,” Hextall elaborated. “He has scored big goals at critical times. You look at his playoff numbers, and he played in some real big games and has played some of his best hockey. That’s part of the reward that we look at.”
“This is a pretty darn good player, and he’s also a very good defensive player, a much better defensive player than people give him credit for. He can kill penalties, he can check and obviously with the offensive part of his game, he’s got a track record of numbers there.”
Gagne said that he is feeling no ill effects from his recent injuries.
“[I feel] really good now,” said Gagne. “Fortunately, what happened last season—I got hurt with the neck. It was hard to play when I came back, but I got better and stronger. I was able to get better treatment—[I learned] stuff you have to do feel better on the ice.”
“I was able to feel very good for the last portion of the season,” added Gagne. “If you look at what I did at the end of the season, I was healthy, I was feeling good. My legs were feeling really good, my game shape was 100 percent. That’s why I was able to finish strong, and [have some success] with Tampa Bay [in the playoffs].”
“I’ve got the whole summer to recover from the playoffs, a long run with Tampa Bay, and get ready for training camp in September.”
Gagne believes that the Kings are on the verge of reaching the next level, which weighed heavily in his decision.
“My priority was to sign with a team that was going to be able to make the playoffs, and I know, with my experience, when you get to the playoffs, it doesn’t matter if you start in first place, or if you end up eighth, everyone has the same chance at that time,” he noted. “I know the Kings have the team to put themselves into a playoff spot. From that point on, you never know what could happen.”
“I believe the Kings have been getting better every year,” he added. “The young guys are getting better and better, too. I think we’re close. That’s why, when I chose between teams, the Kings were at the top of the list. Now they’re a team that good stuff can happen [to].”
Gagne also noted that sprinkling in a couple of talented, experienced veterans often gives a team the extra boost it needs.
“If you look at the last two years, they’re a really good team,” said Gagne. “They’re a young team, but, at the same time, those guys play like veterans already. If you look at teams that have won the Stanley Cup, it’s not like it used to be ten years ago. Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 years old. Those guys play like superstars already.”
“If you look at Chicago, Pittsburgh—they were really young teams,” added Gagne. “You don’t have to look for [teams made up of a majority of veteran players]. You could have teams that are young and already good. They might need a little bit of help from veterans, and having guys like myself, Mike Richards—that definitely could help us get to the next level.”
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