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?
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 18½ 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 die 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 die 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, die 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 die 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 anydiing 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 die 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 polisci 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 regeneration] 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 2½ 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."