Opponents don't give Minnesota's Marian Gaborik much room to operate, but he still finds a way to score.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2002
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- No need to tell Marian Gaborik his room to maneuver on the ice is shrinking. The Wild right wing can feel it.
The bumps and bruises are mounting in direct proportion to the number of goals he scores. Consider it a validation, then, that Calgary's Blake Sloan knee-checked Gaborik in the right thigh and raised an ugly knot.
A better sign the 20-year-old has matured into one of the NHL's most potent scorers and is one of the leaders of the next wave of young stars, came two days later when his hat trick led Minnesota to a 4-2 victory over the Canucks.
"There is definitely less room this season," Gaborik said last week before Minnesota faced the Lightning at the Xcel Energy Center. "I have to be smarter than the opponent. I can't have my head down, especially when you're receiving a pass in the middle. You just have to always be aware."
The same can be said of the Wild's management and coaching staff, which vowed to be careful and consistent in developing Gaborik, whom Minnesota took with the third pick of the 2000 draft. Entering Sunday's game against Carolina, which he missed with the flu, Gaborik was tied for second in the NHL with 19 goals.
That means encouraging Gaborik's talent but nurturing him within the team concept. It means reveling in his accomplishments but putting more emphasis on what they help the Wild achieve.
Compare that to how the Lightning handled Vinny Lecavalier.
Former owner Art Williams dubbed 1998's No. 1 draft choice the Michael Jordan of hockey, a ridiculous statement that put unnecessary pressure on a kid right out of juniors. Lecavalier was asked to carry the team and was a captain at 19. The position was taken away at 21 and, only now, in his fifth season, has he started to grow into a leadership role.
"We're trying to approach this as a team thing and just say everybody has to contribute to the team, and there are no exceptions," Wild general manager Doug Risebrough said. "With Marian, I think that's helped him in a lot of ways in a sense that we haven't said he's the guy. I think the team concept has taken pressure off him with his development. He's young and needs maturing."
In his third season, Gaborik is starting to do just that. A better command of English, honed mostly by watching movies, has given him more confidence with the media and in the dressing room.
Still, on a team that rotates captains monthly based on demonstrated leadership qualities, Gaborik has never worn the C, which is just fine with him.
"There are a lot more experienced guys who have been around," the native of Trencin, Slovakia, said. "I have to learn from them. I look up to these guys like Andrew (Brunette) and Cliff (Ronning), so I don't think at this young age it would help me to be a captain."
Gaborik was plus-3 and second in the league with 131 shots. He has explosive speed that gets his 6-foot-1, 183-pound frame into the prime scoring areas, has a heavy slap shot and a nasty wrist shot.
"It's amazing how fast he gets it off," Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich said. "He snaps his wrist and it's gone. Along with Joe Sakic's, it's one of the greatest. I don't know whose would be harder."
"He's showing superstar qualities," Wild left wing Matt Johnson said. "He seems to be able to find that level that separates him from a lot of guys. He works hard every day. He's just a great guy to have on your team."
But a superstar? Risebrough shook his head.
"I don't believe in the word," he said. "The word is hype. What we want him to be is a really good player on a really good team. He doesn't have to be a star."
He may have already taken that step with his hat trick against the Canucks, with which he became the fourth NHL player to have five hat tricks before his 21st birthday.
"It feels pretty good," Gaborik said. "But you can't let up, as a player or a team."