But again, Gaborik’s last NHL stop was two years of ill-fitting, injury riddled hockey. There were no guarantees that Los Angeles would be any different – some critics, right off the bat, wondered if his offensive creativity could thrive within the Kings' system, having apparently never watched Anze Kopitar play.
The fact was that while Lombardi didn’t want Gaborik to be a liability defensively, that concern was overshadowed by his speed and goal scoring, aka the reasons he pulled the trigger on the deal. And he knew that, ultimately, it wasn’t going to be Darryl Sutter or himself that were essential to Gaborik finding that comfort level he never found in Columbus – it was on his new teammates.
Jeff Carter grabbed him, said ‘You’re not staying in a hotel rom. You’re coming to stay at my place.’ He lands in Winnipeg, the first guy that grabs him is Mike Richards. ‘Let’s go out for breakfast.’
His acclimation, being part of this group is such a tribute to the guys in that room that embraced him right away, that made him feel a part of the family, and by virtue of that, impresses upon him, ‘Hey, this is the way we play here. Certain things have to be done. Now go do what few players can.’
Like, you look at his goals, when we did all our work on him going back to when he was in Minnesota, people think those pucks he’s knocking out of the air are luck? You look back at his tapes – the 40 goal seasons – how many he knocked in like that. That’s a skill. But you’ve got to be a good teammate, and you’ve got to do certain things that every King has to do, now go do those things that make you special. When you see that acclimation happen so quickly, there is no other reason for that than the guys in that room.
Gaborik’s always been a hell of a playoff performer. With 12 goals, leading the NHL postseason, and seven assists, he now has 54 points in 75 career playoff games, including 17 goals in his last 41 playoff games.
But he’s more than a sniper for this team. He’s been an essential part of the Kings’ top line, clicking perfectly with NHL playoff scoring leader Kopitar. (Surreal life for Kopitar: He led Slovenia over Slovakia in Sochi, and then owes his incredible postseason numbers to a Slovak who was absent from that tournament.)
It’s that line that the New York Rangers will have to control if they have a prayer of winning the Stanley Cup, and they’re all too familiar with what Gaborik can do, having seen him score 229 goals in 255 games with the Blueshirts.
"He was a great guy; phenomenal," defenseman Ryan McDonagh told NHL.com. "He was always working hard here with us and scored a lot of big goals. He has tremendous skill and is a great skater. He's going to be a big handful for us.”
Eventually, Gaborik wasn’t a fit anymore for the Rangers and coach John Tortorella. He didn’t fit in Columbus either, with Richards’ blue-collar style.
Darryl Sutter’s not exactly Bruce Boudreau when it comes to association with offensive flourish, and yet he’s thrived during his time there. Maybe that changes when it’s 82 games of Kings hockey instead of the velocity of a short playoff push.
Or maybe Gaborik’s finally his comfort zone: Not as “THE MAN,” but as part of a band of brothers.
It’s something Kekalainen considered after the trade: That Gaborik works best when the spotlight doesn’t blind him, and there was no way it wouldn’t at this point in the Blue Jackets’ maturation as a contender.
“When we talked (after the trade), I told Marian: Maybe our team wasn’t ready for a player like him yet,” Kekalainen said.
“Maybe he could have been a better fit maybe a year or two from now.”
For the Kings, the fit was perfect this postseason.