|Room to grow: Gifted Gaborik getting closer to where Wild would like him to be|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 17 January 2008 12:28|
Minnesota's mercurial right wing, one month shy of his 26th birthday, will go to his second All-Star game next weekend as one of the NHL's most electrifying skill players and one of its most distinguished scorers.
That's essentially where Gaborik was five years ago, though, the first time he was chosen to represent the Wild at the annual showcase.
In the seasons since, a contract dispute, the lockout, uneven production, and a nagging problem with his groin have kept Gaborik from reaching the great heights his team envisioned when the speedy Slovakian was chosen with the third overall pick in the 2000 draft.
``If I look at the potential that he has and where he's playing right now, he's probably 80 percent,'' coach Jacques Lemaire said. ``So you can imagine what he would do if he would get that 20.''
With 25 goals and 24 assists in 41 games entering the weekend, Gaborik has shown how scary he could be for opponents around the league if he tapped that other 20 percent.
``As a goalie, you usually try to always worry about the scorers: who's shooting, who's passing,'' said Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff. ``I try to learn that guy and try to read him, because he is so dangerous.''
Competing for a team that has made the playoffs only twice since the franchise began 7 1/2 years ago, and battling an injury that cost him 34 games last season and 17 games the season before that, Gaborik has had limited exposure outside of his native Slovakia.
His profile was raised considerably on Dec. 20, when he produced the NHL's first five-goal game in 11 years during a win over the New York Rangers. He was so hot he could've scored six or seven times.
``It was an amazing night. I had a lot of fun,'' Gaborik said this week.
The eight games that followed his feat weren't very fun. The Wild went 3-5, and Gaborik's rating was a minus-seven. Lemaire reduced Gaborik's ice time and publicly called for a better effort.
The rather terse exchange was conducted exclusively through newspaper articles, so the actual tension between coach and player was perhaps overstated. Still, it exemplified the lingering challenge - along with good health - to Gaborik's advancement.
Over the years, Lemaire has demanded Gaborik be more active on both ends of the rink to fit his disciplined, defense-first system. Even when the Wild have the puck, Gaborik has been prone to passivity, sometimes standing still and waiting for the action to come to him rather than aggressively pursuing.
``Our game is a team game, and sometimes that help has to come in doing the simple things in games that ultimately you have to believe will make the team win at the end,'' general manager Doug Risebrough said.
Nobody has ever labeled Gaborik as lazy, though. Some of his lapses have come from a hesitancy born out of the fear of getting hurt again. At times, Minnesota has relied on him for too much of the scoring, a burden he has occasionally allowed to weigh on him.
His slump after the five-goal game coincided with center Mikko Koivu's prolonged absence and lagging production from top forwards Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston. Even Lemaire has said his pleas for consistency usually go far beyond Gaborik.
Gaborik's biggest beefs have been over playing time, not expectations or style. He wants to be on the ice as much as possible, for these basic reasons: He loves to score and wants to win.
Ultimately, that's what Lemaire is looking for, too.
``He's done a lot for this team and for myself, as well,'' Gaborik said. ``You know, we had a little bit of some arguments sometimes, but it's all good. He's a good coach, and he wants to try to get the best out of any player. That's how he is.''
Former teammate Darby Hendrickson, now a studio analyst for Wild games on regional cable, said he thinks Gaborik is better learning how Lemaire wants him to be a leader.
``He's not going to turn Marian into a defensive player. His assets are his speed and his scoring ability,'' Hendrickson said. ``Nobody's asking him to be the Selke winner or Mr. Savvy Defense. I think everybody knows his gifts are geared toward offense. It's the little things, like sprinting back on a backcheck or playing good defensive position. That can lead to impatience by the other team, and he can pick it off and go on a breakaway. It's that type of stuff.''
Left wing Stephane Veilleux, one of Gaborik's longest-tenured teammates, has long been impressed by Gaborik's pregame focus. He noted the extra responsibility often carried by a top-line scorer and refused to question Gaborik's dedication.
``I just think that when he brings the work and the extra effort on the ice, it just brings the team to another level,'' Veilleux said.
The first hurdle Gaborik had to clear this season was the training room. The Wild hired another trainer to travel full-time with the team and specialize in muscle massages, which have helped Gaborik keep his groin in better shape. He has committed himself a special stretching program before games, too.
``I feel good right now, so hopefully I can stay healthy,'' Gaborik said. ``That's important for me and I think for the whole team, that if I'm healthy I can perform and help the team to win.''