EL SEGUNDO, CA — After signing a two-year, $7 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings on July 2, 2011, veteran left wing Simon Gagne was in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Karine, looking for a new home for his family, which includes two-year-old son Matthew, and five-month old daughter Lily Ann. But he also took some time to stop by the Kings’ El Segundo offices at the Toyota Sports Center, where he met the local media.
“We’re here for two days, two and a half days,” said Gagne. “We’re not here on vacation. We’re definitely here to spend time looking for a place. We left the kids at home with my mom and her mom right now. We’re spending as much time as we can to find a place for our family.”
“Right now, we like what we see, we like the area a lot,” added Gagne. “We’re really excited about it. Hopefully today, we’ll find what we like, and get a little more time to look around.”
“We’re really excited about the area. Everything looks really close and really clean and really nice, so we’re actually…not surprised, but I’ve never had time to take much time when we came to LA. It’s just in and out, so I’m really excited about it, and understand why, talking to [former Kings forwards] Lappy [Ian Laperriere], who played here, [Eric] Belanger and [current Kings right wing] Justin [Williams], I understand why it’s a great place to play hockey.”
Gagne also got a chance to don the Kings jersey, emblazoned with his number 12, for the first time.
“I got a call, asking me which number I wanted, and I asked for number 12,” he said. “I said, ‘I think there was one guy who was in the minors, [who] was up and down a little bit last year, had it.’”
“They said, ‘no, it’s not too hard. We’ll give him another number,’ so I was pretty excited,” he added. “That’s the number I’ve been wearing since I was a little kid.”
Gagne talked about his reasons for choosing the Kings over other suitors in this year’s unrestricted free agent frenzy, and familiarity proved to be a major selling point.
“It’s going to be a different situation again [like his move from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Tampa Bay Lightning], but I think the transition to another team was made last year,” Gagne explained. “I went to Tampa last year, and I thought that was going to be easier than what I went through. I was in Philly for eleven years, so for me and my family to move for the first time in my career—it never happened in junior either, so that was a little tougher than we were expecting, even on the ice too.”
“The last couple months of the season, I felt fine,” Gagne elaborated. “I think the cord was cut with the Flyers, and all that. That’s going to be a lot easier to do, coming here with a lot of [familiar] faces that I had a chance to be with when I was in Philly. That’s the way I feel. I was talking to [Kings assistant general manager] Ron Hextall the other day on the phone, and [Kings President/General Manager Mr. [Dean] Lombardi, too, was working with the Flyers, and all the coaching staff. I’ve been working with them for many years.”
As alluded to earlier, Gagne already has friends on the team, including Williams and newly-acquired center Mike Richards.
“Player-wise, I’ve got Justin Williams,” Gagne noted. “We almost started together in Philly, and we’ve been really good friends, even since we weren’t playing together. Now we’re playing together, so it’s fun again. And Mike Richards was my centerman in Philly for the last three years I played there. So, yeah, it almost feels like a little bit easier of a transition than if I was going to pick another team.”
“That was one reason [for signing with the Kings]—knowing a lot of people working for the Kings,” Gagne added. “My friendship with Justin. Talking with him just before July 1, and Mike Richards too, those two guys got me a little bit excited. They were saying, ‘It would be fun if you come here,’ stuff like that.”
“And the city, and the way the team has been playing the last two years. I see a lot of comparisons with the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh, when they won the Cup, a really young team that got better and better really quick.”
Gagne believes the Kings are well positioned to get to the next level.
“If you look at the Kings the last two years, making the playoffs, yeah, they lost in the first round, but it’s experience that will help us to get to the next level,” he emphasized. “At the same time, those guys are getting more experience, and they know what it takes to move to the playoffs. After that, you have to work to get to the next level.”
“I think Mike Richards—he is someone who can help the team get to the next level,” he added. “Everything is possible in the playoffs. The Blackhawks won and Pittsburgh won with teams that are similar to what we have here, and good defensively with two good goaltenders. That’s something that was easy for me, when the offer came to the table. I was really excited, and all those reasons were good enough for me to take the deal with the Kings.”
In contrast to the familiarity he will have coming to the Kings, Gagne’s move to the Lightning last season was a bit of a rocky road.
“That [system in Tampa] was different,” Gagne stressed. “Even for a new player, coming into a new team last year, all the guys had to adjust to pretty much everything—a new coaching staff, and a different philosophy. So we had to learn as a group last year, and that was difficult.”
“From the way the Lightning was playing, it was tough to understand, and for the players, it was hard early in the season,” Gagne added. “It’s a tight system that was really difficult to play, but, at the end of the day, it was pretty hard for the other teams to play against. That might be why we had some success and we did surprise a lot of teams.”
“On the other side, coming back to the system that I’m used to playing, Murph [Kings head coach Terry Murray] was the coach for defensemen when he was in Philly, and his system is a little different than [Lightning head coach] Guy Boucher’s. So going back to that system that I think I had a lot more success, maybe offensively—that might be something I’m looking forward to—to getting back to that. I know I had success with that, personally. So I’m really excited about that.”
Already established chemistry with Richards will also go a long way towards Gagne adjusting to his new digs.
“When you’re coming to a new team, who knows, I’m sure we’ll have a shot to play again on the same line, but it’s going to be up to the coach,” said Gagne. “We have a lot of talent on this team, offensively, and we’ll try to find the best chemistry. [Richards and I] know what we can do, and that’s another plus. You’re adding two new guys to the team, but two guys who know each other already, so we don’t have to work to find that chemistry. You know it’s there.”
But it has been awhile since they played together, right?
“It was there before, and only last year we didn’t play together, so it’s not going to be that hard to get back on the ice and find each other,” Gagne stressed. “I know what Mike likes to do on the ice and he knows what I like to do, so like I said, it worked before and we know it can work again.”
“It’s going to be up to the coaching staff to decide what they’re going to do with the lines at camp and during the season,” Gagne added. “You know that lines are going to be flexible, you know they’re going to change once in a while. It happened that we didn’t play together for a couple games, but we’ll see what’s going to happen at camp this year.”
One challenge that Gagne faces that is nowhere near as daunting in the Eastern Conference is the travel West Coast teams face each season. But he is either not worried about it, or has no idea what it’s really like.
“[The increased travel is] definitely something that will be different,” he noted. “That’s totally going to be different than when I was in Philly. Tampa, I have to say, there was more traveling than in Philly. So that was not too bad. I guess it’s going to be a little bit more here, but if you look at our division—Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose—it’s not that bad. You’re going to face those teams a lot, so I guess travel is going to be a little more when you go to the East but it’s part of the game.”
“When playoffs come, some teams are not used to traveling,” he added. “This is sometimes when you see the difference. So playing for a team that will travel a little bit more, maybe your body gets used to it a little bit more, and when the playoffs come you know what to expect. You know it’s not something new.”
“It was not a difference last year in the playoffs for Boston, but I guess that could be a plus, to get used to it physically and mentally. But that’s something that’s going to be new. I’ve never played in the West, so that’s definitely going to be different than the last couple years.”
Playing in the Western Conference for the first time will definitely take a bit of getting used to.
“[When you play for an Eastern Conference team], you come to the West every once in a while, but you only play one game against a team and you don’t have a chance to see that team in your building,” Gagne explained. “It’s not the same feeling as being in the same conference, so I’m excited to see the difference. I don’t know as much, and it’s hard to know what is the difference between the East and the West.”
“Sure, when you watch TV it looks pretty intense in the West,” Gagne elaborated. “It used to be different. It used to be more tight in the East and more open in the West. Now it looks like it’s the opposite, like it’s more open in the East and a little tighter in the West, but I used to play that for many years in Philly, so we’ll see.”
“I believe that teams are a little bit better, I think, in the West, but then you look at what happened in the Stanley Cup [Finals] this year, Boston beat Vancouver, which had 100-plus points playing in the West, so who knows? I thought the West was better, but at the end of last year, Boston won. Is that telling us that the East is better than the West? I’m excited to play a full season and see that.”
Gagne will be expected to bring veteran leadership to the Kings dressing room, even though it is not likely he will be named as an assistant captain—those positions are already filled by center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Matt Greene.
“You can lead, with or without a letter on your jersey,” said Gagne. “That’s what I’m here for. I’ve got the experience, especially in the playoffs, the last two years—one game away from the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and the year before that with Philly, we got to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Chicago.”
“[The Flyers] had a lot of success the year we went to the Stanley Cup Finals,” added Gagne. “That might be the time where we had our best hockey. Maybe in the Finals it was not as good as we wanted, especially when you lose Game 6. It wasn’t good enough to win, but just before that, I think we had a lot of success against Montreal and Boston and against the Devils. I think that’s a plus.”
A solid amount of playoff experience should also prove to be valuable.
“That’s stuff that, as a player, if you don’t go there, you’re never going to know what it takes,” Gagne emphasized. “I’ve got that. That’s something I can bring to the young, talented team we’ve got here.”
Leadership and experience are certainly desirable qualities. But the bottom line for Gagne is that he is expected to contribute greatly to the Kings offense, something the two-time forty goal scorer will need to do for the Kings to reach the next level.
“I want to get back to [being] the player I was two years ago [when he scored 34 goals and added 40 assists for 74 points in 79 regular season games with the Flyers], scoring a lot of goals, and get back to where I know I can be,” he said. “I got there at the end of the season with Tampa, so I know it’s still there.”
Can’t Say Bob Miller Doesn’t Like A Challenge
When the Kings made their huge pitch to sign unrestricted free agent forward Brad Richards on July 1, the running joke was that the “Voice of the Kings,” television play-by-play announcer Bob Miller, who will call the action for his 39th season starting in October, must have been dreading the thought of having to call game after game with Brad Richards, Mike Richards and Brad Richardson playing on the same line.
For most, that would be like trying to say “tongue twister” three times fast dozens of times each day for months. Nevertheless, Miller, the 2000 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, making him a media honoree in the Hockey Hall of Fame, indicated that he was looking forward to the challenge until Brad Richards signed with the New York Rangers.
“I would’ve welcomed it,” said Miller. “In 1978, the Montreal Canadiens had [Guy] Lafleur, [Guy] Lapointe, [Pierre] Larouche, [Yvon] Lambert, [Jacques] Lemaire and [Michel] Larocque.”
Being Philly West Might Not Be A Bad Thing
With Lombardi and Hextall in the front office, Murray and assistant coach John Stevens behind the bench, and former Flyers players Gagne, Richards, and Williams (don’t forget center Michal Handzus, who signed with the San Jose Sharks as an unrestricted free agent after four seasons with the Kings, also played for the Flyers), the Kings are sometimes referred to, and usually, derisively so, as Philly West.
But those doing the snickering, making snide remarks, or offering outright criticism may be way, way out in left field on this one.
“[The Flyers have] the second highest winning percentage in the history of hockey [behind the Montreal Canadiens],” Lombardi noted. “Certainly, in the modern era, by far, [they are] the winningest (sic) [team].”
“There’s a reason for that,” Lombardi added. “When you sustain that for a long period of time, there’s something [good] going on.”
So what, right? After all, the Flyers have not won the Stanley Cup since 1973-74 and 1974-75—the Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup in 36 years.
“They still got one, right? What have we got? They’ve got two,” Lombardi pointed out.
Hard to argue with that.
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