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Wild Ride The feel-good story of the first half was overachieving Minnesota, which is in the thick of the playoff race thanks to high-scoring 20-year-old speedster Marian Gaborik

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

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Jan. 20, 2003

Wild Ride The feel-good story of the first half was overachieving Minnesota, which is in the thick of the playoff race thanks to high-scoring 20-year-old speedster Marian Gaborik

Marian Gaborik gathered a deflected puck and headed up ice on a
breakaway against the Los Angeles Kings last week, shifting
gears from quick to quicker to three-points-on-your-license-
and-a-$200-fine. The television replays confirmed that he was
stoned by goalie Felix Potvin, but the sensational Gaborik is
better appreciated in real time than in slo-mo. He has the
fastest first strides in the NHL, which leads to this question:
Why is coach Jacques Lemaire making Gaborik idle on the bench
with his emergency flashers on?

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue Original Layout

Earlier this season Mario Lemieux called the 6'1", 183-pound
Gaborik "one of the four or five best players in the game."
Before facing Minnesota last week, Kings coach Andy Murray said
Gaborik might be the "best player in the game." After the match
he amended his words, saying, "If he's not the best, he's
definitely the most exciting." Lemaire, who in his worst moments
is a Cassandra with a comb-over, said last week that Gaborik was
"O.K."

Not that the Wild roster is oozing with skill--if Gaborik, the
first draft choice in Wild history, is Porsche-like, then many of
his teammates are 1979 Chevy Novas--but the right wing, who had
23 goals through Sunday, plays only 18 1/2 minutes per game, five
fewer than Alexei Kovalev of the Pittsburgh Penguins and two
fewer than Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks, other elite
wingers. In a 2--1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 8,
Gaborik played just 16 minutes, the ice time usually reserved for
third-liners. Earlier this season Lemaire used him to kill
penalties, but the coach abruptly stopped. "Too young," Lemaire
said of Gaborik, who doesn't turn 21 until Valentine's Day.

Gaborik is limited to a standard 45-second, even-strength shift
on a team that plays four lines, plus the first minute of the
power play, unless Lemaire wants to make a point about defensive
positioning. In that case he glues Gaborik to the bench, which
happened about a half-dozen times in the first half of the
season. "Look, he's got great acceleration, one of the quickest
wrist shots, can shoot at top speed, moves to holes well and
wants to learn," Lemaire says. "But he has a lot to learn, and at
some point these kids stop learning for different reasons. Could
be the money. Could be because they're in love. Could be the
environment. We don't put him on top [of the marquee]. Many other
places might put him on top and destroy a kid like that. Here,
he's just a player."

Even so, the coach is cognizant of what he has in Gaborik. When
prodded, Lemaire concedes that he has never coached a better
forward in his seven-plus years around the NHL. As the Montreal
Canadiens coach from 1983--84 through '84--85, he guided a
washed-up Guy Lafleur and the effective but hardly dominant wing
Mats Naslund. With the New Jersey Devils from '93--94 through
'97--98, he coached developing star forwards Bobby Holik and Bill
Guerin. Gaborik is Lemaire's first prodigy, having progressed
from 18 goals as a rookie in 2000--01 to 30 goals last season to
this year, in which he's on pace to score 44. Lemaire, the most
technically advanced coach in the NHL, lives in a world of X's
and O's, and in Gaborik he finally has an audacious player who
can do anything he diagrams.

"You know how you can tell what Jacques really thinks about him,"
general manager Doug Risebrough said last week. "The coaches and
G.M. often suit up for optional practices. The standing joke is
if Gaborik is wearing a black jersey, Jacques will be playing on
that team, too.

"We know that Marian could be a great player, but we don't want
him to be. We want him to be a winning player. Other sports, you
look at one guy and say that he can change the game. That doesn't
happen in hockey."

Until the 52 points Minnesota earned in the first half of this
season blew its cover--the 22-14-7-1 Wild was fifth in the
Western Conference through Sunday--the team was virtually
anonymous. Everything is understated in St. Paul, from a
delightful hole-in-the-wall called Mama's Market, where
Risebrough gets his morning coffee, to the retreads and
reclamation projects who give the Wild its down-market soul,
such as forwards Wes Walz and Jim Dowd, to the humble Gaborik.
As he wandered downtown one afternoon last week, not a single
passerby recognized him. The lanky kid in a maroon ski jacket,
jeans and baseball cap with a tangle of blond whiskers on his
chin looked more like a sophomore cutting poli-sci class than a
millionaire taking a walk at the end of his workday, an
unassuming man on a team that stumbles only when it takes
things for granted.

"I was all offense when I got drafted," said Gaborik, a native of
Slovakia who was the third overall pick in 2000. "I could choose
two ways--I could do my own stuff, or I could listen and learn.
If I did my own stuff, I would have been in the minors, at least
at the beginning. I look at Ilya Kovalchuk [the poster boy for
the me-generation] and think if he played here, it would be a
different story for him. I don't think it's right that anybody
can do what he wants. We're doing this as a team."

The Wild is blessed with that rarest of traits: self-awareness
of its limitations. This is a club in the classic
Chip-Hilton-we're- all-in-this-together sense of team, not 20
independent contractors who wear the same color sweaters. Maybe
there is a growing collective ego, a sense that the Wild is not
the rank underdog it has been almost every night in its first 2
1/2 years of existence, but there is hardly a sense of
individual ego. "We have more talent than people give us credit
for," Walz says, "but we understand a good percentage of the
teams in this league have more than we do."

The Wild has no choice but to be a system-oriented team. It is
reminiscent of the last old-fashioned NHL club, the 1995--96
Florida Panthers, who reached the Stanley Cup finals that season.
Those Panthers and this Wild, each a third-year, defense-first
expansion club, were built around a 1-2-2 forecheck. Each had a
single star, goalie John Vanbiesbrouck for Florida and Gaborik
for Minnesota. The obvious differences are speed--the Panthers
were clutch-and-grab, the Wild is among the best-skating teams in
the conference--and the competition: Florida faced crumbling
Eastern Conference squads, Minnesota tiptoes through a minefield
of good Western clubs.

The Wild seemingly suffered a setback last week when co--No. 1
goalie Manny Fernandez sprained his left knee, but Lemaire was
untroubled by the idea that journeyman Dwayne Roloson, whose
goals-against average was down a startling .80 this season from
his career 2.83 mark, would have the job to himself for at least
four weeks. "You look at the names on the roster and go,
'Well...,'" says Canucks forward Trevor Linden. "Then you watch
them play, see how they're committed to the system, and you say
they're going to make the playoffs."

That notion is never expressed in the Minnesota dressing room,
which is grounded in humility. Even if there is a sudden playoff
itch at the March 11 trading deadline, Risebrough vows not to
scratch it. He says that any transaction he makes must offer
long-term benefit to the Wild and, by extension, Gaborik. Late
last month Minnesota recalled 6'2", 218-pound leftwinger Jeremy
Stevenson from the team's minor league affiliate in Houston, not
because of his scoring--he had four goals in 68 NHL games since
1995--96--but because his physical style will keep Gaborik from
absorbing a tremendous pounding. Lemaire plans to play 5'10",
162-pound rookie Pierre-Marc Bouchard regularly in the second
half, not because the bite-sized 18-year-old center will carry
the Wild but because it should hasten his development and make
him a suitable playmate for Gaborik, one of only four NHL players
to have at least five hat tricks before turning 21.

Lemaire takes it slowly with his bubble-wrapped boy, because it
hardly matters if you can go from first gear to fourth in the
blink of an eye if you don't have a clue where you're going.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUCE KLUCKHOHN FAST FORWARD With his amazing acceleration, Gaborik gets many breakaways, including this successful one against Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin.COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN FRAYER/AP (TOP) MARIO LEMIEUXCOLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANFORD/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI MARIAN HOSSACOLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (TOP) WANTED When asked to pick a young player to build around, the coaches' top choice was Heatley.COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI MIGHTY JOE Thornton (above) finished a close second to Heatley.

The First Unit
SI's midseason All-Star team (statistics through Sunday)

LW Markus Naslund, Canucks Splendid finisher (NHL-leading 31
goals) has a classic wrist shot.

C Mario Lemieux, Penguins Runaway scoring leader (league-high 68
points) has dominated at age 37.

RW Marian Hossa, Senators Dazzling scorer and open-ice player who
fits Ottawa's disciplined system.

D Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings Most complete defenseman of his
generation.

D Sergei Zubov, Stars Mobile, efficient and clever with the puck.

G Ed Belfour, Maple Leafs After a rocky start he bailed out the
injury-ravaged team with his spectacular
play.

Woe, Canada
Can the floundering teams in the Great White North stay afloat?

The Ottawa Senators, who couldn't meet their biweekly payroll two
weeks ago despite team salaries that total a relatively modest
$30 million, filed for bankruptcy protection last Thursday. Rod
Bryden, the team's majority owner, owes various creditors,
including the NHL, $92 million. He's looking for a U.S.-based
partner who will buy into the team and keep it in Canada's
capital, an unlikely scenario considering recent history. In 1995
the financially strapped Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver,
and one year later the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix. In the
wintry land of the 64-cent dollar, here is a ranking of the
long-term viability (from least to most) of the NHL's six
remaining Canadian franchises.

1. Senators Despite putting an elite team on the ice (including
Marian Hossa, below), Bryden has grumbled about the lack of
corporate support. An exit from Ottawa after this season would
not be surprising.

2. Calgary Flames The franchise has strong corporate support and
a solid 12,400-season-ticket base, but some in the aging
ownership group will be looking to sell their shares in the
coming years.

3. Edmonton Oilers To survive long-term, this ownership group
needs a systemic change in the salary structure when the CBA
expires after the 2003--04 season.

4. Vancouver Canucks This young, exciting, well-run team should
be safe unless deep-pocketed, Seattle-based owner John McCaw
loses interest and sells.

5. Montreal Canadiens Colorado-based owner George Gillett
leveraged himself to acquire the team and arena at a bargain
price ($184 million), but an NHL without this storied club is
unthinkable.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs This powerful franchise, an anomaly in the
Canadian context, will be around as long as there is
hockey. --M.F.