- Craig Custance
“I told Marian, ‘Maybe our team wasn’t ready for him,’” Kekalainen said during a Wednesday morning phone conversation.
Timing is as important as fit when it comes to adding a player such as Gaborik. The Kings had pursued him when he was a free agent in 2009 before he signed with the New York Rangers and had they been successful things might not have worked the way it has now in Los Angeles. That Kings team was similar to the team in Columbus now, a group still building its collection of talent, establishing a culture and learning how to win.
The Kings of 2014, however, were ready for Gaborik.
Their culture is set. They know how to win. GM Dean Lombardi could take a risk on a player who maybe didn’t fit the typical definition of a Kings player he had identified through the years.
Since this was the year of the conditional draft pick in trades, Kekalainen was motivated to send Gaborik somewhere it could lead to success. The third-round pick included in the deal required either a contract extension for Gaborik or the Kings to win a round in the playoffs, which they barely did in rallying to beat the San Jose Sharks.
To say it’s been a success for Gaborik is an understatement, but there’s no bitterness from the team that couldn’t extract what the Kings are getting out of one of the most skilled players in the league.
“I don’t think we ever had any doubt when he was here that he had lost his ability to play. It didn’t fit with us,” Kekalainen said. “We’ve seen this many times in the history of hockey. Some player doesn’t play up to his ability somewhere, he goes somewhere else, and he was reborn. We’d given it a shot for a year. He is a good person, we wish him the best of luck.”
At this point of the postseason, he can use it. In the Western Conference finals, Gaborik is competing against the Chicago Blackhawks and close friend Marian Hossa, and in a way, their stories are playing out in similar fashion.
They’re very different players, but it also took Hossa a few teams before he found the ultimate success, the perfect fit he has in Chicago.
For Gaborik, it wasn’t easy watching his good friend bounce from one team to the next, coming so tantalizingly close to winning a Stanley Cup and then falling short. Along the way, he also saw a player in Hossa whose game evolved as he learned exactly what it took to win at this time of year.
Gaborik was watching with group of friends at Hossa’s brother’s house when Marian finally lifted a Cup for the first time in 2010.
“Everybody was really happy for him,” Gaborik said.
Now Gaborik is working on his own Stanley Cup. He hasn’t come as close as Hossa did in Pittsburgh and Detroit before winning, but he’s had a few runs of his own. In 2003, Gaborik’s Wild advanced to the Western Conference finals before being swept by the Anaheim Ducks.
In 2012, his Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing in six to the New Jersey Devils.
Now he has another crack at it, but with Hossa standing in his way. On two teams loaded with stars, Gaborik and Hossa each has the potential to tip the balance if one can outperform the other.
Hossa is having another strong playoff run, perhaps his best, which is impressive because he is 35. Gaborik has been just as good.
Gaborik's nine goals lead the playoffs, and the assorted ways in which he has scored them underscore just how talented he is. There’s been an assumption that he’s just plugged in with Anze Kopitar, and Kopitar is doing the heavy lifting. That would be wrong. He’s scoring every way possible. His first goal of the playoffs started with a strong play in the defensive zone that he followed with a rush up the ice and an unassisted backhand. He has scored a number of goals by getting to the front of the net to either tip a shot or bang home a rebound.
His goal in Game 2 against the Ducks showed off his speed along with the quick-strike ability of the Kings. The puck started deep in the defensive zone, when Jake Muzzin worked the puck over to Drew Doughty, who sent the puck up the wall to Dustin Brown, who quickly found Kopitar as they entered the neutral zone. While his teammates were breaking out, Gaborik was working up a full head of steam on the other side of the ice. When Kopitar found him with a pass entering the offensive zone, Gaborik was in full stride, blowing past a flat-footed Ben Lovejoy before scoring.
That goal was a great example of why Gaborik and the Kings work together so well. His teammates made four passes in six seconds to spark the transition, allowing the Kings to capitalize on his speed and ability to finish.
In a time of year when space on the ice is at a premium, Gaborik continues to find it.
“I just try to get to those dirty areas, you know? In front of the goalie. Try to look for those rebounds there,” Gaborik said. “I try to get open and get it back. These days, you don’t see coast-to-coast, somebody just picking up the puck. You don’t see that often, and we don’t play that way.”
The Blackhawks pose the biggest threat to Gaborik’s ability to keep scoring in the postseason. Too often, he was untouched when going to the front of the net in Rounds 1 and 2. Part of that is Gaborik’s ability to time the opening along with Kopitar’s ability to attract attention in that area, but it also falls on the Sharks and Ducks defensemen.
A guy like Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was on the ice for 91 percent of Gaborik’s shifts in Game 1 (according to shiftchart.com), won’t make it easy for Gaborik in front of Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks defensemen are also aware of the importance of not letting him get behind them, like he often did against the Sharks and Ducks.
“Staying in front of him is the challenge. He’s got lots of speed,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said Tuesday. “He’s able to make plays. He’s got a great shot. He’s one of those guys that’s multidimensional. You’ve really got to be aware of him when he’s out on the ice. He seems to do a good job of finding the soft spots, finding the area behind the D.”
And, in sending out a line that consists of Jonathan Toews, Hossa and Bryan Bickell, the Blackhawks' best course of action is making Gaborik spend most of his shifts in the defensive zone. In Game 1, the Kings controlled 51.7 percent of the shot attempts at even strength when Gaborik was on the ice. That’s down from 54 percent over the course of the entire playoffs.
This is Gaborik’s biggest challenge yet, with a close friend standing in the way. If he can find a way for the success to continue in this round, he may be on a path to a breakthrough like Hossa had in 2010. And perhaps find a team he can settle down with long term.
“I’m glad to be part of this team, I’m enjoying it here. We’ll see what’s going to happen,” Gaborik said when asked about plans beyond this season. “I’m not thinking this far down the road. It’ll take care of itself after this season. Hopefully, it can go far.”