Marian Gaborik made Dean Lombardi and the LA Kings winners of this year’s NHL Trade Deadline.
Now, the Kings are one game away from making Gaborik a champion.
Playing on his third team in two seasons, Gaborik started the year alternating turns between underwhelming play and injuries on an also-ran club in Columbus.
By March, his team was no sure thing to make the playoffs, and Gaborik seemed to be playing out the string on the final year of a six-year contract given up on by his twice-former team.
At 32, he was a declining asset, but one with name cachet.
So the Kings, with little in the way of cap space but with a great need for offensive prowess, took a buy-low gamble on Gaborik. It cost them forward Matt Frattin and a pair of draft picks, but they collected a former 40-goal scorer who wasn’t too old to be rejuvenated in a new setting. Lombardi even got the Blue Jackets to retain a portion of his salary.
Fast-forward to today, and the Kings seem poised to join the Chicago Blackhawks as the only team since the 2005 lockout to have won two titles.
Gaborik, no small part of the picture, has helped the Kings to flip their regular season identity on its head. Los Angeles ranked among the league’s worst teams offensively in the regular season, but have been outscored by no one in the playoffs, leading the way at over 3.5 goals per game.
In the process of that transformation, Gaborik has scored a playoffs-leading 13 goals and found a new home alongside top center Anze Kopitar.
If it helps to lead to another title, Gaborik’s addition could cement Lombardi’s status as the wizard of the NHL Trade Deadline.
What makes the Kings successful is not the splashy trade deadline deals, but allowing those new guys to come to LA and augment a core that is among the league’s best before the deadline ever comes close.
In other words, continuity.
The Kings, who’ve reached three straight Conference Finals’ and are on the verge of a second Cup title in that same span, can pin a large part of their success on a ship that isn’t often rocked by ownership or management.
That starts with head coach Darryl Sutter and a stable front office which has built a roster as rich with depth as with star power. It starts with having world-class players at key positions at the peaks of their careers, some under contract for the foreseeable future.
Those things can create a contending team. Keeping them together, keeping things working smoothly, without distraction and under the ever-exerting pressure of the NHL salary cap — those things are key to making a team a contender for the long haul.
Those are the teams that can have success at the trade deadline.
The Kings roster has seen little turnover in the last few years, as 18 players from the 2012 championship squad are still with the club as it verges on a second title. The team’s top forwards have remained impact players, as have their best defender (Drew Doughty) and starting goaltender (Jonathan Quick).
Familiarity can breed success. However, it doesn’t hurt to add an outlier to the puzzle, just to help put things over the top — especially one as talented as Gaborik.
Gaborik was the Kings’ lone splash at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, a deal Lombardi was able to make at the time despite the then-new report that the salary cap for the coming season could be considerably lower than projected.
“We found out, to our chagrin and surprise the other day, we had been told the cap was going to be $71 [million] and now with the Canadian dollar having tanked, that the cap could be as low as $68 [million]. That’s a huge swing,” Lombardi said.
“So that’s more of the talks with our three guys, Mitchell, Lewis and Greene, who we’d all like to bring back. That’s more of a hindrance than anything we acquired today. “
Despite that limited space, the Kings still swung the deal for Gaborik, whose talents seemed sorely needed for an LA squad that ranked among the five-worst teams in the NHL in scoring in the regular season (26th in goals per game, 27th in power play success rate).
Getting Gaborik to LA took a little creative accounting, and some faith. The Kings demoted a forward to make Gaborik’s salary fit, and Lombardi swung a masterstroke in getting the Blue Jackets to retain a portion of his salary.
In theory, the trade deadline provides an opportunity for a new guy to help push the existing group over the top for the stretch run. Sometimes, smaller trades with pinpoint intentions (Bill Guerin & Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh in 2009) can do the trick. Other times, blockbuster deals (Carter to Kings, 2012, or Martin St. Louis to the Rangers this season) can get a team over the top.
Gaborik, this year, was in his first full season with Columbus, where injuries and ineffectiveness made him expendable nearly immediately.
In swinging for Gaborik in the last year of his contract, the deal with the Kings was a classic deadline rental.
A game away from the title, it’s a deal the Kings have now very handily won.