A veteran of 54 postseason games coming into this year, Marian Gaborik–the first player drafted in Minnesota Wild franchise history–is on track for his best playoff campaign yet. It may not be enough to draw serious interest from Minnesota, a team that has clearly moved on, but it’s at least drawing attention from the fans.
After scoring just 23 goals and 34 assists for 57 points and a plus-4 rating in 88 games with the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and, most recently, the Los Angeles Kings over the course of the past two seasons, it was almost fully cemented in the minds of many that Gaborik was on the decline. This postseason, however, has many seriously questioning that belief. In 14 playoff games with the Kings, Gaborik has scored a league-best nine goals and six assists for 15 points and a plus-4 rating. What’s more, it looks like he very well could be the missing piece to L.A.’s lineup offensively.
To date, the talented right winger’s best postseason came during Minnesota’s magical run to the Western Conference Finals in 2002-03, a tournament that saw the then-third-year pro score eight goals and nine assists for 17 points and a plus-2 rating in 18 games. The Wild failed to make the playoffs the next three seasons–granted, one was wiped out by a season-long lockout–before a brief five-game bow-out in 2006-07 in which Gaborik scored three goals and an assist for four points and a plus-3 rating.
The Wild winger exploded in 2007-08, scoring 42 goals and a total of 83 points and a plus-17 rating in 77 games, but Gaborik’s six-game one assist negative-3 postseason left much to be desired. Injuries limited him to just 17 regular season games in 2008-09, but when he played, he was a monster, scoring 13 goals and 10 assists for 23 points and a plus-3 rating. Then-GM Doug Risebrough let Gabby walk in free agency that offseason, signaling it was time for a change of the guard as he would be relieved in favor of current GM Chuck Fletcher.
Gaborik’s three and a half seasons in New York were filled with ups, downs and the usual injuries, but there’s no question he played his best regular season effort that first season when he scored 42 goals and 44 assists for 86 points and a plus-15 rating in 76 games. The knock on him the past several seasons is that he struggles when he has to be “the guy”. It was that way in New York and Columbus, but the 2000 third overall pick comes into an interesting situation in Los Angeles, which already has Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown up front. There’s not as much pressure on Gaborik like there was in Minnesota, New York and Columbus. With the pressure off, Gaborik just goes out there and plays his game knowing that he’ll get a few opportunities to capitalize on every night.
In his 13 seasons, the only other time Gaborik has come this close to winning the Stanley Cup was with Minnesota, and this Kings club is certainly much more talented than the “Minnesota Miracle Men” of old (yes, I borrowed that from the Mighty Ducks). However, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer. Gaborik may currently be having a postseason for the ages, but there’s a chance his injury history could cut into the size of the pay check he’s eligible to receive. The odds are good that Gaborik will re-sign with Los Angeles, but could he actually be a cheaper option for teams in the Thomas Vanek sweepstakes?
According to CapGeek.com, Gaborik, Vanek and current Wild winger Dany Heatley are the highest paid forwards heading into free agency. Gabby and Heater both have a cap hit of $7.5 Million. Vanek currently sits at $7.142 Million. Minnesota heads into the offseason with exactly $22,724,744 in cap space. Restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine, Darcy Kuemper and maybe Jonathon Blum need to be re-signed. Heatley comes off the books, as does Matt Moulson (with a cap hit of a little over $3.133 Million) and a trio of fourth liners that can probably easily be replaced. However, six key young forwards and defensemen will be RFAs next season and should be offered extensions as soon as Fletcher sees fit.
Minnesota is in an interesting situation with emerging young guns and a nice supporting cast of All-Star caliber vets. Jason Pominville starts his five-year extension next fall, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are locked up for the next decade and Mikko Koivu is signed for another four years. With the departures of Heatley and Moulson, the Wild still have room for another big name veteran to fill out the top three forward lines.
Vanek is the most likely option considering his connections to the state and the fact that Pominville is his best friend and former line mate in Buffalo. However, Gaborik could probably be had for around the same price, and–honestly–why not Gabby? He’s still the second-leading all time scorer in Wild franchise history, as Koivu just managed to surpass him this season. He’s speedy, explosive and has a goal scorer’s touch this team has lacked ever since he left. Like in sunny Los Angeles, California, Gaborik would no longer have to be “the guy”, and as stated earlier, that’s when he really thrives.
The key in signing either Gaborik or Vanek is that neither contract should be more than five years or more expensive than $7 Million per year; a three-year $15-$18 Million deal would be ideal, yet is almost guaranteed to be unrealistic. Whichever one Minnesota signs (if either one is even signed by the club, retaining the youngsters is and should be the No. 1 priority), he won’t be the future of Wild hockey, but could be a vital part of the present (or past, as is already Gabby’s case), though. Another talented vet on the wing would go a long way in helping this team.
In the history of the franchise, the Wild has gone from Gaborik’s team, to Koivu’s team, to Koivu, Parise, Suter and Pominville’s team. The next logical step is to give it to the next generation of Minnesota stars. That next generation is already here, but that doesn’t mean another “oldster” like Vanek or Gabby can’t be signed to help them along in the meantime. Besides, “Parise along the left wing boards…drops it back to Mikael Granlund in the high slot, who finds Gaborik closing in on the back door, he shoots–he SCORES!” has a ring to it, doesn’t it?