Marian Gaborik a surprisingly good fit with defensive Kings
The 32-year-old Slovak was acquired by Los Angeles on March 5, at the trade deadline
LOS ANGELES — Marian Gaborik played eight seasons for Jacques Lemaire on some of those stultifyingly-dull Wild teams, followed by three-plus in New York for John Tortorella.
A squarer peg could scarcely have encountered two rounder holes.
After a brief, injury-plagued, unsuccessful interlude in Columbus, the 32-year-old Slovak was acquired by the Los Angeles Kings on March 5, at the trade deadline --- a move, viewed from a distance, that seemed destined to misfire.
Gaborik, a wonderful offensive talent who had already run afoul of a couple of hard-ass defensive coaches, trying to fit in with a Darryl Sutter team that was embarked on a low-scoring, grinding Jennings Trophy season as the stingiest defensive club in the National Hockey League?
Well, that's just one more way people misjudge Sutter as a coach --- and, according to Sutter, Gaborik as a player.
"He's only been a minus-player once," Sutter said, earlier the playoffs. "He's averaged 37-some goals in his career. In today's game, it's about who has the puck, it's not about his defending. We're the top two or three in league in terms of having the puck."
Playing on the left wing with Anze Kopitar on the Kings' No 1 line, Gaborik leads the playoffs with eight goals, he's gone to the front of the net to get most of them, and the time it took him to adjust to the Kings' game, Sutter said, was . . . .
"Zero. I talked to him when we got him in Winnipeg. I told him he was playing with (Kopitar) and I'm not going to go out of my way to change the way he plays. Just give him a basic guideline," said the coach.
"I said a couple days after we got that him that his hockey IQ is off the charts, so he can adjust in a hurry. He's been an easy guy, quite honest, to deal with."
Sutter admitted Wednesday, on the morning of Game 6 of their Freeway Series with Anaheim, that he had heard some of the usual criticisms of Gaborik.
"I had the opportunity to coach Gaborik," Lemaire once said. "I tried at the start to get Gabby to play a two-way game as good as he could play. You know what? It wasn't working because Gaborik is an offensive player and he has to think offence pretty much 90 percent of the time he is on the ice. The 10 percent when he thinks defensively is when he is in his own zone."
"You look at stats, everybody will say he's just a goal-scorer. He's more than just a goal scorer," said Sutter. "Other than early in his career and this year with the collarbone, he's been a real durable guy who's played lots of minutes, lots of situations. He can play both wings.
"I know I was asked at the start, and there are assumptions and opinions that have been had, but I don't think those people were right."
Like Jeff Carter, the year L.A. won the Cup in 2012, Gaborik has been a shot of adrenaline to the offence. The Kings were 25th in goals scored this season.
Gaborik scored three goals in the first-round series versus San Jose and has five more in five games against Anaheim, including both the tying goal with seven seconds left and the overtime winner in Game 1.
"It's certainly a change since my time being here, we've never really had a No. 1 line, left-shot, left winger," said Kopitar, the playoffs' leading scorer with 16 points.
"He's a constant threat with his shooting ability and his scoring ability. Every time he comes into the offensive zone, everyone is paying attention to him, maybe that gives me a few more inches to work with. Giving the puck to him in the slot is always a good option."
"I think it helps from a physical standpoint, but what it does is it pulls attention off other guys," said captain Dustin Brown, who's been playing the right side with Kopitar and Gaborik.
"We bring in Gabby and teams can't isolate on Kopy and Carts as much, so they get a little bit more room. The more weapons you have the harder it is to cover them . . . they've got to kind of pick their poison, who they want their top D pair on.
"That allows other players to slot in really well and just play their games, so his goal scoring ability obviously helps on the stats sheet but I think it's the collective effect he has."
Gaborik has done everything Sutter has asked of him, and has clearly loved the alliance with Kopitar.
"Those guys are very hard to find. I don't think he gets the credit he should around the league," said Gaborik. "He's one of the top two-way players out there. It's been fun to play with him, of course."
And as for toughness, Gaborik has been rebuilding his good name there, too.
"It is a grind, but you don't have one team dominating in the whole playoffs. They are very even series out there. We knew that would be the case, that this series would be tight."
An unrestricted free agent this summer who was carrying a $7.5 million price tag on his last deal, he may not be back in that territory again wherever he signs, but his marketability is getting better by the day.
Score in the playoffs, score at contract time.
Whether it's the Kings who end up paying, or someone else, this unlikely marriage has been good for both parties.
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