EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Simon Gagne thought the Los Angeles Kings would be a Stanley Cup contender. That’s why he signed with them as a free agent last summer.
Gagne’s projection was correct. He just wishes he had played a bigger role in making it happen.
Gagne returned to practice with the Kings on Friday as they went through their first full workout since clinching a spot in the Stanley Cup final. The high-scoring veteran left wing hasn’t played for the Kings since Dec. 26, when he suffered his latest concussion in a win over Phoenix.
Although the seven-time 20-goal scorer is cleared for contact and says he’s 100 per cent symptom-free, even Gagne isn’t sure he should be added back to the Kings’ lineup for the final round.
"I’m available, but at the same time, you have to look at what this team has done," Gagne said. "They’ve played a lot of good hockey. They’re the reason why we’re here now. I’m just going to work hard in practice, like I did the last month, and we’ll see. You never know what can happen in the final."
Gagne wore a green jersey at Friday’s practice, doing drills on a line with youngsters Marc-Andre Cliche and Andrei Loktionov. He relished the chance to work out with veterans including former Flyers teammate Justin Williams, who says his French language skills have suffered during Gagne’s absence from their adjoining lockers at the Kings’ training complex.
"Well, we’re still playing, so he got an opportunity to practice with us," said coach Darryl Sutter, who took over the Kings just three games before Gagne’s injury. "You need lots of live ammo. … Somebody asked (about Gagne’s availability) a week or so ago, and there was no chance then, because he hadn’t even skated with the team. All you do is improve your (chances). You go from zero to whatever."
Gagne has watched from the stands as Los Angeles rampaged through the Western Conference playoffs without him, winning 12 of 14 games during one of the most impressive post-season runs in recent NHL history. He has ample playoff experience, reaching the Stanley Cup final with Philadelphia — and current Kings teammates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter — in 2010 before getting to the Eastern Conference finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season.
"When you don’t play, it’s definitely a different feeling," Gagne said. "I was there two years ago. I did pretty much the same thing these guys did two years ago. It’s bringing back some good memories. Everything they did, it’s so fresh in my mind that it’s almost like I’m even more part of it. For sure you’d rather be on the ice than watching the games in the stands, but I didn’t go back home. I stayed here the whole time, so that makes me feel part of the team now, even if I don’t play."
When Gagne went looking for a new team last summer, he chose the Kings for their talent and tenacity, paying little heed to their sparse history of playoff success. Gagne saw something special in Los Angeles’ roster.
"I was looking at this team as a team that could do really good stuff in the season, and especially in the playoffs," Gagne said. "The mix of this team, with veterans, guys who have been there before and won it or lost it, all that mixed with young players that have been in the league for five or six years. I saw that team as capable of doing something really good. It was just a question of getting into the playoffs, and I knew that this team was built to do well in the playoffs."
Gagne’s post-Christmas concussion wasn’t his first, and he realized he faced a long recovery after scoring 17 points in his first 34 games with Los Angeles. He began skating by himself more than two months ago, joining the Kings’ minor-leaguers and junior prospects a few weeks later.
Gagne got a two-year, $7 million contract to provide an offensive boost to the low-scoring Kings, but he never really got the chance. Los Angeles has solved its scoring woes in the post-season, outscoring its opponents 41-22, and Gagne is thrilled to see it.
"It’s the best time of the season, that’s for sure," Gagne said. "I’m just getting myself ready in case something happens. It’s a final. You never know what can happen and what I can do."