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A World Class Addition

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

It worked one time, with the Kings taking a bit of a chance on an oft-injured, talented winger, one with huge upside who started his NHL career in Philadelphia. So why not try it a second time?

In July, the Kings signed Simon Gagne to a two-year contract, knowing that it could go one of two ways. Gagne could be the 40-goal scorer of 2005-07, with the Flyers, or the star-crossed winger who struggled to stay healthy on the ice for a full season over the following four years.

Thus far, he’s been the former. Two-plus weeks into the season, Gagne was on a point-per-game pace and looking strong and productive on the first line with center Anze Kopitar and right winger Justin Williams.

"Hopefully I’m going to feel like this for the rest of the season, and even better,’’ Gagne said. ``It’s still early-season and as a player, especially when you’re getting older, your game is getting better by the middle of the season, so it’s a good sign that I feel good right now. I know that the more I play games, the more I’m going to get better and more comfortable and I’m physically going to feel better. It’s really good for confidence, especially when you come to a new team, that you get some good stuff going on.’’

Perhaps the sight of Williams on the other side of the ice has inspired Gagne. Over the long term, given what Williams has gone through, that’s probably the comparison Gagne would like to draw for himself.

When the Kings traded for Williams late in the 2008-09 season, he was considered talented but fragile, a two-time 30-goal scorer who had missed more than half of the games over the previous two seasons.

Williams missed 33 games in his first full season with the Kings, but rebounded nicely last season and scored 57 points -- his highest point total since 2007 -- and earned a contract extension. Over the summer, he also went on a recruiting mission, to help the Kings land a friend and former teammate.

"We’re both kind of in the same boat, very similar, with various injuries,’’ Williams said. "It’s still early and I know he’s just looking for an 82-game season, just like I am and just like most guys are, but especially us. We’re hoping to play the majority of the games, and hopefully all 82, and be productive doing it. I know that’s what Simon wants to do.’’

When Williams learned that the Kings -- spurned in their effort to land top free agent Brad Richards -- had interest in Gagne, he send text messages to his friend, urging Gagne to give the Kings a look. Williams, more than anyone, knew that a talented scorer still lurked under that that shadow of injuries.

Gagne’s potential is undeniable, and at age 31, he’s still in his prime years. He scored 47 goals in 72 games in 2005-06, scored 41 goals in 76 games in 2006-07 and scored 34 goals in 79 games in 2008-09. The Kings would be thrilled with a duplication of any of those years.

The problem, though, is what else happened. Gagne missed 57 games in 2007-08, 24 games in 2009-10 and 19 games last season, as he totaled only 41 goals in those three seasons.

Freak injuries can happen, and by all indications, Gagne doesn’t have any chronic injuries that will be a long-term issue, but once a player gets the tag of "injury-prone,’’ it can be hard to shake.

"There’s no surprises from Gagne’s game,’’ coach Terry Murray said. "He’s a very complete player. When things are going the right way, through his hard work and focus and execution, his game is a world-class game. Whether you’re looking at play without the puck, which is the reason why, as you go back through his early years, that he was making Team Canada in the Olympics, it was because of his intelligence and staying above the puck and making good decisions.’’

Those skills have helped Gagne ease doubts so far this season. He entered training camp penciled onto the Kings’ second line, alongside center Mike Richards -- a former linemate in Philadelphia -- but by the end of camp, Gagne had moved up into a first-line role alongside Kopitar.

"There was puck possession, some speed through the middle of the ice, possession entries,’’ Murray said. "You take a look at it and you say, `Gee, maybe we’ll take another shot at this and see how it starts to go.’ I’ve sensed a good chemistry and a good feeling with those three guys. It doesn’t surprise me that there is good chemistry. Simon Gagne, in my time with him, is basically a world-class player.

"He’s so smart. He’s above the puck. He reads off the puck extremely well, and I can remember the times in Philadelphia, playing with Peter Forsberg, they were almost magical out there at times. He’s a very capable player. He’s got high skill on both sides of the puck. His IQ on the ice allows him to just play with basically any kind of player. There are really some good things happening right now.’’

So far, Gagne has showed to be an intelligent player with a good skating stride and a solid linemate for Kopitar and Williams, a player who makes good decisions and is both a scorer and playmaker.

"He’s so easy to play with out there,’’ Williams said. ``He makes little possession plays that allow us to hold onto the puck. He has great offensive instincts. I played my first 4 1/2 years with him, and forgot how much I missed playing with him, so I’m glad he’s back.’’

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