Russo's NHL Insider: Gaborik's journey takes him to Stanley Cup Final

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2014 - 6:54 AM

The ex-Wild star took a bumpy route but is thriving in L.A.

Who would have thought, five years ago, that one of the stars standing in the way of Doug Risebrough, one of Glen Sather’s right-hand men with the New York Rangers, collecting another Stanley Cup ring would be … the Los Angeles Kings’ Marian Gaborik?

During the summer of 2008, Risebrough, the Wild’s first general manager, flew to Trencin, Slovakia, with then-assistant GM Tom Lynn to sit down with Gaborik. Because Gaborik was a year from free agency, the Wild wanted to handsomely extend his contract so he could finish his career in Minnesota.

That September, Lynn, now an agent, says the Wild offered Gaborik a 10-year deal worth $79.5 million. Lynn says agent Ron Salcer wanted $99.5 million. The Wild demanded a counteroffer and negotiations broke down.

Gaborik promptly got hurt playing soccer hacky sack in Florida. He underwent hip surgery that December (under his own volition, an angry Risebrough made clear). Having played only six games before the 2009 trade deadline, Gaborik was untradable and the Wild ultimately lost him for nothing once Risebrough was fired and new GM Chuck Fletcher opted not to put that $79.5 million offer back on the table.

Gaborik signed a five-year, $37.5 million with the Rangers on July 1, 2009, the team for which Risebrough would become a consultant. Now Risebrough, who has won Stanley Cups as a player with Montreal and as an assistant coach in Calgary, is a constant ear for Sather. He loves the role because it enables him to scout and help from afar while having the freedom to live his life.

Starting tonight, Gaborik will be going head-to-head with his former Rangers teammates in an attempt to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time.

L.A. redemption

Last season, presumably to get away from former Rangers coach John Tortorella, Gaborik waived his no-trade clause to go to Columbus. He scored nine goals in a brief, 40-game, injury-riddled career with the Blue Jackets before being dealt to the Kings for peanuts this past March.

Three playoff rounds later, Gaborik has proved his worth and then some. The Wild’s franchise leader with 219 goals has scored a league-leading 12, including the tying goal late in the third period of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, to help give the Kings a chance to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.

That’s right, in 21 playoff games, Gaborik has scored three more goals than he did in his Blue Jackets career. His 12 goals are in fact 12 more than he scored in the 2008 opening-round loss to Colorado for the Northwest Division champion Wild.

It’s been a tough couple of years for Gaborik, who lost his best friend, Pavol Demitra, in a plane crash; close friend Derek Boogaard to a drug overdose; and some family members. But it’s been visible for all to see just how much fun he’s having now, and it’s all but guaranteed that he’ll be forgoing free agency July 1 in order to re-sign in Los Angeles.

The swift right winger with a deadly wrist shot and nose for the net is showing why Risebrough and Lynn wanted to give him the big bucks. All postseason, he has been a clutch game-breaker on a line mostly with Anze Kopitar, the front-runner to be named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP if the Kings win it.

Two for the show

Gaborik is finishing checks and hustling on backchecks and is one of the great trade-deadline pickups in recent memory. Neck-and-neck is Martin St. Louis, who had a rocky start to his Rangers career after demanding out of Tampa Bay but has been superb all postseason for the Rangers.

He has 13 points, tied for the team lead with Minnesotans Derek Stepan (playing with a broken jaw) and Ryan McDonagh. Rangers teammates have rallied around the recent loss of St. Louis’ mother. Down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time, the Rangers have won seven games since, with St. Louis missing no games and chillingly scoring on Mother’s Day.

The Kings, 9-1 in their past 10 playoff series, won three road Game 7s to get to the Stanley Cup Final. This is a team that was down 3-0 in the first round to the San Jose Sharks.

As Kings defenseman Alec Martinez told NBC Sports Network after he scored the overtime clincher against Chicago in the Western Conference finals against Chicago, “We’re kind of like a bunch of cockroaches. You can’t get rid of us.”

The Stanley Cup Final has it all. It has thoroughbred defensemen Drew Doughty of the Kings vs. McDonagh. In goal, it has 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick of the Kings vs. the King — “King Henrik” Lundqvist.

And it has the glitz and glamour of the major markets from each coast.

Stars come out

Back when Wayne Gretzky landed in Hollywood from Edmonton, Kings games were a place to be seen for celebrities. It’s that way again with Colin Hanks, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Alyssa Milano and David Beckham often flocking to Staples Center.

Like in 1994 when the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, the newly-renovated Madison Square Garden is again a place for star sighting. Jason Bateman, Jimmy Fallon, Liam Neeson and Susan Sarandon have spent the spring attending Rangers games, as well as former and current athletes such as John McEnroe, Matt Harvey, Boomer Esiason and Justin Tuck.

It’ll be fun to see which other celebs come out of the woodwork and jump on each bandwagon.

It’ll also be fun to see if the Stanley Cup Final can live up to the drama of an incredible Western Conference finals between the Kings and Blackhawks.

That exhilarating back-and-forth, up-and-down series was hockey entertainment at its finest.

The Kings, as long as fatigue doesn’t disable them against the fresher Rangers, should be in the driver’s seat. They are a better team than when they won it all in 2012.

“I know one thing, they find a way, L.A.,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday night. “They’re never out of a hockey game, they’re never out of a series. They’re dangerous.”

 

Michael Russo michael.russo@startribune.com

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