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Gaborik gone? Wild keep rolling along

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the time being, the Minnesota Wild are without superstar winger Marian Gaborik because of an injury, but pretty soon he could be gone for good.

Gaborik's "lower-body" injury is just one of the problems concerning the Slovakian's future in St. Paul. The Wild may also wind up trading Gaborik, now that negotiations for a new contract have reportedly fallen apart.

Still, none of this seems to be bothering Minnesota, which is 6-0-1 to start the 2008-09 campaign and is the only team left in the NHL this season without a regulation loss.

Gaborik played in the first two games of the year for the Wild, but has sat out five in a row due to the unspecified ailment. Big things were expected this year from the 26-year-old after he set career bests in goals (42) and assists (41) during the 2007-08 season.

Marian Gaborik has sat out five games in a row due to an unspecified ailment.

The Wild have failed in their numerous attempts to sign Gaborik to a contract extension, and the right winger is seemingly ready to part ways with the club. According to numerous reports, Minnesota offered the star at least $8 million a season in deals that ranged in length from seven to 10 years, but Gaborik hasn't bitten.

Since Gaborik has refused the Wild's advances, the club will likely have little choice but to trade him. However, one problem in moving him could be the fact that he has a salary of $7.5 million this season, and many teams that would normally be interested in making a deal simply won't be able to make cap space for Gaborik. Of course, the fact that he's currently injured won't hasten a trade either.

My belief is that Gaborik will be traded at some point this season. When a player with Gaborik's type of offensive skill becomes available, some team - most likely a desperate club - will eventually do what's necessary to acquire his services. That may involve drastic measures to reduce payroll or parting with talented youngsters, but there will be at least one team prepared to do one or both of those things in order to get Gaborik.

For the Wild, the key has always been sticking to the system put in place by Jacques Lemaire, the only head coach in the franchise's history. Lemaire's defensive coaching style employs a heavy use of the neutral-zone trap, and his teams have been able to routinely make the playoffs despite sporting a roster that usually lacks big-name players.

There are many critics of Lemaire's coaching style, especially from diehard hockey fans, who believe the trap to be something akin to the downfall of Western civilization.

But Lemaire's style is about putting his players in the best position to win games, although the defense-first attitude was probably not the ideal situation for a speedy sniper such as Gaborik. The Wild are able to be successful without Gaborik in the lineup because his quickness and offensive skills are simply an added bonus for Minnesota, which is always worth more as a team than the sum of its parts.

However, in another system Gaborik could be the centerpiece, a player who could have the entire offense revolve around his strengths. The Wild should be able to get a great deal of talent in return for a player of Gaborik's caliber, and those new additions may be better suited to Minnesota's style.

Lemaire has led Minnesota to the postseason in four of his seven seasons as the franchise's head coach, and the Wild have made the playoffs in each of the past three springs. However, the team was also eliminated in the first round for the third straight time last year, leaving the 2003 postseason, when Minnesota made it to the Western Conference finals, as Lemaire's lone successful playoff run in St. Paul.

Perhaps the trap system employed by the Wild is designed only to get the team to the postseason, but isn't an adequate strategy to get the club deep into the playoffs. It was thought for some time that Gaborik's skill combined with the team's defensive discipline could be a good fit, but the experiment is nearing its end.

If and when Gaborik goes, the Wild will rely heavily on centerman Mikko Koivu for offense. The 25-year-old is leading the club with 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) through seven games this year, and plays a solid two-way game that meshes well with Lemaire's philosophy.

The decision to trade Gaborik is by no means official, but it seems that the young star is forcing Minnesota's hand in that direction. Unless the Wild blow Gaborik away with an improved offer, he'll be on another team by the end of the season, although the Wild would be smart to get Gaborik back on the ice to show that he's healthy in order to maximize his trade value.

For now, the Wild will continue to trap their way to success, with or without Gaborik.

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Dan Di Sciullo