I had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Elliott on September 19 of last year. If you have not read it, you are missing out. My goal then was to get to know the experienced and decorated L.A. Times Sports Columnist whom L.A. Kings fans applaud or frown toward for her no-nonsense articles. She was warm, charming, classy and so very generous with her time and the interview brought perspective to the person behind the opinions. This year, we again caught up with Helene. From Mike Richards and Simone Gagne to the Ryan Smyth trade, Dustin Penner’s off season, the pursuit of Brad, the Drew Doughty contract drama, and so many recent and continuing stories, we had much to discuss. Surly joined me in the interview and, on August 5, we chatted with the Hockey Hall of Fame journalist. You’re in for a treat. Here is part I of the interview. Part II will come tomorrow.
Scribe: We talked in September of last year. You identified the center and wing positions as the L.A. Kings’ greatest needs, in that order. With Mike Richards, Dustin Penner and Simone Gagne, assuming Gagne stays healthy, do you consider those needs addressed?
Elliott: Depends on which Penner we see this season. Do we see the Penner we saw last season who wasn’t in tip-top shape, to put it mildly, or do we see the Penner who comes into camp in shape, playing for a contract and inspired, the one who uses that size, uses those hands and contributes.
Scribe: Do you consider Penner’s production to be more or less important to the Kings’ success than the issue of Gagne and his health?
Elliott: I think Penner is a key because of the size and because he has had 30 goals seasons before. I do believe he is the key in a lot of ways. Losing Ryan Smyth is not something the Kings planned on. But, even if Ryan Smyth had returned, they would have needed to add some production from the wing. I would like to see more speed on the wings but Dean does not seem to think it is as important as I do and we will let him be the General Manager and see how it turns out.
Scribe: Let’s talk about Gagne. He can skate and has the speed but his health has continued to be a question. Categorize his health. Do you consider him a “big if”, such that you would be surprised if he remains healthy or is he akin to any other player, no more prone to injuries than anyone else?
Elliott: The fact that he came back at the end of last season, played and played well means there is less of a concern at this point. He did play high-caliber hockey and you look at his numbers, they were pretty good. I don’t think there is any carry over from last season and I wonder when you talk about a player who is injury prone, like a Justin Williams, well, is there a common thread here? Is there a knee that he is always injuring or a shoulder or something chronic and there really isn’t. These are just guys who aren’t the biggest guys, they are going to get hit, they are going to suffer shoulder, knee and all kinds of injuries. Hockey is a dangerous game and it’s going to happen. I don’t think there is more worry for a player like Gagne than anybody else.
Scribe: Justin Williams is the definition of freak injuries, Helene. I swear he is going to have a left ear injury that will cause him to miss games.
Elliott: [laughs] That would not surprise me.
Scribe: Dean Lombardi and one of his favorite people, Paul Holmgren, called the Mike Richards trade a “good hockey trade,” expressing it was a win-win for both teams. Do you agree?
Elliott: What are they going to say? What do you expect them to say? “Gee, I really had some worries about this, but I did it anyway?” The thing that disturbed me is they brought Mike Richards into town for a press or news conference and I saw a tweet from Richards afterward and it said, I was in town for three days and all they did was ask me about that garbage, referring to the Dry Island stuff. I was at that press conference and there were other questions besides that. If he is complaining about that, this is going to be a very long season.
Scribe: What are your thoughts about the trade itself? Were you surprised?
Elliott: In a way, yeah. It was more likely that Carter was on the block than Richards. In the last three years we have seen whispers about leadership and most of the time, the whispers are not true but sometimes there is a germ of truth to it and I think we are going to find out this season.
Scribe: The overwhelming majority of Kings’ fans love the trade. There is a vocal minority who declare trading Schenn was a mistake and it goes against Dean Lombardi’s claim of building from within. They say, “what is the point of drafting good players high in the draft if you are just going to trade them?” What are your thoughts on that?
Elliott: I got emails from people that said Schenn is going to be a Hall of Famer. I went, “whoa, calm down here.” [laughing]. “I get it, you don’t like the trade, but let’s blow this into proportion, please.” It is an interesting move for a GM who came into a team where there was no depth, whose motto was to build through the draft but Dean believes, and maybe right or wrong, this team has reached another stage, this team has progressed to the point where you take these assets, where you take these draft picks and you turn those into the needs or pieces that will fill the needs that you have and have not been able to fulfill any other way. I am not quite sure they are as far advanced as Dean thinks they are but we’ll find out.
Scribe: Were you surprised the Kings went after Brad Richards after landing Mike?
Elliott: I was a little surprised. They certainly had the cap room to do it but I also was not surprised when he went somewhere else. There is still that problem of luring premium free agents here that hasn’t quite been solved. As much as the team has improved, they still need to get over that hump of making sure players believe this is a good place to play and this is a place they can win.
Scribe: Do you see anything other than a Stanley Cup or, at least, another round in the Finals doing that?
Elliott: Probably not. Although, having Mike Richards come here could help. He is a credible player around the league and for him to be here may say a lot to other players but they need to go more than a round. Look at last season and I think you can say, if it was not a step backward, it was certainly a step sideways. Statistically, they were not off by much but when you watch this team and watch it progress as long as we all have, there was that sense they should have gone further than one round.
Scribe: Last season did feel a bit like a country line dance didn’t it, as we ended in the same place?
Elliott: Absolutely. You can say, “we lost to a very good team,” etcetera but at what point do you stop making the excuses and just make the progress?
Scribe: Are the Kings a better team today than they were last season?
Elliott: That is impossible to say. Right now, Drew Doughty is not under contract.
Elliott: I am curious to see what happens on the powerplay. Gagne should certainly play a big role there. Remember in losing Ryan Smyth, they lost a player who is slow, yes, aging, yes, but he stood in front of the net, took punishment and led the team in powerplay goals. I wonder who is going to replace that?
Scribe: Assuming Drew Doughty signs, comes into camp in shape, are the L.A. Kings skilled enough on paper to be a contender, that term being defined as top four?
Elliott: I would still like to see more speed, frankly. Look at the teams that went far into the playoffs. Except for depth up the middle, which the Kings may very well have now, you will see speed and I don’t see a whole lot of it here. I think this season, they have to go deeper than one round.
Scribe: Do you want to see more speed in the top six, bottom six or both?
Elliott: Top six. The bottom six is your grinders, role players, look around the other teams in the division, you will see speed in a lot of places but you really need it in the top six.
Scribe: Your initial reaction when you learned Ryan Smyth asked for a trade for “family reasons”?
Elliott: You know, I understand he has to do what is best for his family. My only question with it was how he handled it by initially denying that he asked for a trade. He spoke with Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal and his quote was something like, “holy cow! I never asked for a trade!” and I thought that was badly done. He could have said, “you know what, my family just prefers to be in Canada and I am going to honor that request.” Nobody is going to begrudge him for making his family happy.
Scribe: How did you think it was going to turn out when you first heard about it?
Elliott: You knew from the start the Kings were going to be at a disadvantage. Immediately. Everyone in the world knows this guy wants out plus he had the right to approve where he was going to go and he wanted to go to Edmonton. So, the market was limited and Dean Lombardi had very little leverage. At that point, the best outcome for Lombardi was to clear salary cap space and that is what he tried to do.
Scribe: Which led us to this interesting grievance that has now been filed. Do you consider this Lombardi v. Tambellini grievance a fascinating subplot or something less?
Elliott: I think it is an interesting look at how NHL teams operate, whether it is Lombardi v. Tambellini I am not sure, but you look at it and the first player they were going to take, Brule, was not procedurally cleared to play and they give him another guy and you say, “you know what, it’s Lombardi’s fault, he should have been sure Fraser was ready,” and Lombardi himself admitted he just signed off on it, because it was the Sunday night after the draft, they wanted to get out of town, Tambellini had assured him Fraser was going to be cleared to play within the next few days so Lombardi was going to sign off on it and there it went. But, it also becomes a trust and honesty issue. Every NHL team has an obligation when they trade a player to turn over that player’s medical records and to accurately represent what that player’s medical situation is going to be. According to the Kings, that is not what the Oilers did.
Scribe: Here comes a tough one…
Elliott: Oh oh…
Scribe: You are the Kings GM
Elliott: [laughs] Oh oh…
This seems like a good place to stop Part I of the interview. Part II will come tomorrow.
(all photos by the wonderful Kasey Spatz)