Wednesday October 15th, 2008

If you're in the market for an affordable Minnesota Wild jersey, here's a rare bit of good news for these tough economic times: Odds are that the team's shop will be slashing prices on Marian Gaborik models very, very soon.

The inability of the club and the impending free agent to finalize a contract extension before the start of the season suggests that this drama won't end happily with a handshake and a long-term agreement. Forget about the team's first-ever draft pick remaining Wild for life. The growing impasse suggests he won't even finish the season in Minnesota.

And if GM Doug Risebrough is smart, Gaborik may not even last the month.

As difficult as it may be for the franchise to cut ties with its leading scorer and lone original member, it now seems inevitable. There's always the chance negotiations will sputter back to life, but Wild fans can't blame Risebrough if his next press conference revolves around a trade rather than the announcement of an extension. Numerous league sources have confirmed that the gifted winger was offered a deal up to 10 years in duration at $8 million per.

That's a significant offer by the Wild. Certainly it's fair enough to entice someone who's never been a top-10 scorer or award candidate -- and who has missed a major chunk of time to upper leg injuries in three of his previous four campaigns.

That sort of scratch would have put Gaborik in pretty elite company over the short term. Just five players -- including Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Vincent Lecavalier -- are scheduled to make more next season. Gaborik, though coming off a career-best 42-goal, 83-point season, hasn't done anything to prove himself in their class just yet.

That should tell you why these negotiations are going nowhere. He's saying all the right things, of course, telling the local media he'd love to remain with the team. But the truth is that, barring an over-the-top offer that would put him in Ovechkin's tax bracket, Gaborik is committed to testing the market next summer.

Chasing the possibility of a bigger payday doesn't make Gaborik a bad guy. But his obviously disingenuous approach does leave Risebrough in a bit of a bind. Gaborik's a lot like the stock market lately, a volatile but promising asset whose value seems just as likely to tank as soar. And so the GM is stuck trying to play the market timing game. The longer he waits, the likelier it is that his leverage decreases. That's why Risebrough won't wait until the March 3 trade deadline to move the player.

Of course, Risebrough has to find someone who is willing to dance with him. Cap issues, both this season and in the future, limit the number of teams that are capable of ponying up. And even if he can find a partner, the immediate return probably won't help the Wild defend their Northwest championship. That's a tough pill for fans to swallow, but the less painful alternative to losing Gaborik for nothing in July.

So, where is Gaborik likely to go? The Penguins have popped up as a possibility, but that's just speculation. It's not hard to see that Crosby is a racecar saddled with square wheels for wingers. The thought of Gaborik and the Kid gunning it into enemy territory is delicious, but the math doesn't work. The Pens already have four big-ticket players on the books for next season, with the possibility of a fifth in Jordan Staal. Worse, they have $41 million committed and just 11 players signed. And while Staal has been mentioned as possible trade bait, it's hard to imagine the Penguins dealing more young talent for another potential free agent, especially after clearing the prospect shelves in last season's Marian Hossa deal. Staal eventually may go, but it'll be for affordable, signable talent.

And honestly, the Wild likely won't get a player of Staal's caliber in return. Long-term rental or not, this deal is likely to be structured similarly to the one that sent Chris Pronger from Edmonton to the Ducks. That means a reliable young player, a blue-chipper and a first-rounder.

The Sabres have some cap space, and the kind of young talent and picks to make an intriguing offer. After losing so much talent to the free agent game, Buffalo could use an immediate infusion to legitimize their run for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Montreal, in a make-or-break year with just four forwards signed for next season, has to be in the running. It would require some nifty cap space shuffling by Bob Gainey, but the Habs' GM has proved to be one of the best in the game.

The most intriguing possibility might be the Panthers, a team with plenty of cap room next season, pressure to break a long playoff slump this season, and the need for a positive PR move given the likely loss of impending free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Hmmm...wonder if one team would be willing to swap its problem for the other's?

Every day that passes without some sort of resolution is a gamble for the Wild, but the risk is just as high for Gaborik. If he suffers another injury that costs him more than a couple games -- something that seems as likely as Angelina Jolie adopting another third world baby -- then he loses considerable bargaining leverage. Then that $80 million or so might not look so bad in hindsight.

More productive negotiations are expected to start shortly between the Detroit Red Wings and Henrik Zetterberg. The reigning Conn Smythe-winner plays the sort of reliable high-end game that would generate an Ovechkin-like offer if he made it to free agency next summer. But he's made it clear that he'd like to stay in Detroit -- that's not lip service either -- and he recognizes that he'll have to take less, and adhere to the Nicklas Lidstrom salary cap, to remain a Wing.

Pavel Datsyuk's recent extension him pays $6.7 million a year for the next six. Look for Zetterberg to take something in that range for next season, with a bump to $7.5 to $8 million per year after Lidstrom's current deal expires after 2009-10. Whatever the final number, it'll be a sizable raise over Zetterberg's current $2.9 million. . .

As a native son of the true north strong and free, I don't have a dog in the American electoral fight, but I do offer this advice: Enough with the hand- wringing over Sarah Palin dropping the puck at the Flyers' home opener. Whatever the motivations of team owner Ed Snider, it's unlikely that Palin's presence at the ceremony swayed the opinion of a single voter. So what we're left with is arguably the most talked-about woman in the Western world showing her support and generating publicity for our sport. That's a good thing, people. And hey, if her side prevails, the next Cup-inner could be greeted at the White House by someone who actually watched the finals. . .

Speaking of politics, former Winnipeg Jet star Thomas Steen fell short yesterday in his bid for a seat in Canada's parliament. The 14-year NHL vet ran as a Conservative in Winnipeg's Elmwood-Transcona, which meant he had about as much a chance of winning as his Jets used to have against Wayne Gretzky's Oilers. The riding had been in NDP hands since 1979 -- two years before Steen began his NHL career. Hall of Famer Ken Dryden had better luck, holding on to his York Centre seat for the Liberal party. The former president of the Maple Leafs has carried the riding since 2004. . .

Best part of the spirited tussle between Jarome Iginla and Willie Mitchell on Saturday night? Seeing both combatants doff their bonnets right after shedding the gloves. It's a rarely seen display of respect that should be written into future legislation regulating fighting. The absence of the helmet not only minimizes the potential damage to a player's fists, it demands a level of courage that ensures only the truly willing and able will drop 'em.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.