Thursday January 20th, 2005

A year ago last week, Marian Gaborik was named to the All-Star Game. He was the first Wild player to be so honored in the expansion franchise's history, and many of us presumed that over the years All-Star accolades for the supremely talented Slovak would be an annual occurrence.

Gaborik had a goal and two assists in the game in Sunrise, Fla., then was arguably the best skater in the postseason during the Wild's run to the Western Conference finals. It was hard not to look ahead to this year's All-Star Game, which will be played on Gaborik's home ice at the Xcel Energy Center, and see it turning into a personal showcase for one of the NHL's breakout stars.

But there will be no All-Star nod for the 21-year-old right winger this year. Probably no reprise of his playoff heroics, either.

Instead, Gaborik, who has just five goals and 13 points in 36 games, is the latest young talent to learn this lesson: A nasty, protracted holdout may add a few extra dollars to your contract, but it will kill your -- and your team's -- season. (Actually, sitting out training camp and the season's first month didn't even bring Gaborik much financial gain. The three-year, $9.4 million contract he signed on Halloween wasn't substantially different from one the Wild offered him in September.)

Gaborik's play has picked up slightly in recent weeks, though you can't tell from the scoresheet. His last goal came on Dec. 26 and he has just three assists in 2004. Most nights he has looked like a player who missed camp and is trying to catch up to the rest of the league. He leads Wild forwards in ice time (14:11 per game) and shots (3.1 per game), but he has admitted that his confidence is down and his tension level is up. He's one of the quickest skaters in the league -- he won the All-Star fastest skater competition last year -- but he's not blowing by defenders as easily as he once did.

That may be due in part to the way opponents play him. You can see defensemen sprinting back to their end whenever Gaborik comes within sniffing distance of the puck. But it seems that every year at least one young star engages his team in a snippy contract showdown and then endures a lost season. Last year it was Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who won 37 games the previous season, sat out training camp and then struggled for months to regain his form. Not coincidentally, the Sharks tanked last season.

In 2001, Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier skipped camp, signed a new deal in early October, then was inconsistent for months. He was stripped of his captaincy and, looking back, it's not hard to see that the seeds of the current tension between him and coach John Tortorella were sown that season.

With Gaborik and left wing Pascal Dupuis -- another holdout -- absent from the lineup early this season, the Wild lost all chance of carrying over momentum from their Cinderella playoff run. The team lost five of its first seven games. By the time Gaborik finally returned to the ice on Nov. 4, the Wild had improved to 5-6-1-0, but their offense has been just as punchless with their best player as it was without him. Even though the tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez has given the team some of the stingiest goaltending in the league (their combined 2.15 GAA is sixth-best), Minnesota is stuck in 12th place in the West with 46 points.

Even when Gaborik is flying, the Wild are a young, raw team that's short on offensive firepower, and therefore has zero margin for error. They must adhere to Jacques Lemaire's defensive system and pounce on mistakes for their offensive opportunities, a style that demands complete devotion to team play. Canucks general manager Brian Burke wasn't far off when he referred to Minnesota's merry trapsters as a "cult" during last year's playoffs.

It's no surprise that a team like that would be decimated by the extended absence of its top player. Fans can debate whether Gaborik or the front office was to blame for that holdout. What's not in doubt is that Wild's season was in jeopardy before it started.

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