For the past three months, no update on the Minnesota Wild has made it into print, no opinion has passed a Wild commentator's lips, no thought has crossed a beat writer's mind without including at least a passing reference to a single issue: what's the status of the Marian Gaborik negotiations?
Though neither side has said so yet, the issue is easy to see: Gaborik, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, has the Wild over a barrel - and he knows it.
Gaborik is the only star in team history. He's the guy who wears the number that also adorns the backs of fans from age two to eighty-two at the Xcel Energy Center. He's the player that makes people nationwide take notice, he's the lone gunman filling up the statsheet, he's the only player on the Wild that outshines the team's coach - and he did it by being the only one to break out of Jacques Lemaire's defense-first system.
Keep in mind that this is a team that's sold out every home game in franchise history. The Wild have played seven NHL seasons, have won a grand total of two playoff series, got bounced in the Western quarterfinals last year by the lower-seeded Colorado Avalanche - and still had people camping out on Tuesday to be first in line to buy single-game tickets on Saturday. Wild merchandise lines the streets of St. Paul. The team televises virtually every game, home and away, the local ratings for which dwarf basketball and approach those of baseball.
In short, the Wild want for no advantage, in terms of either fiscal or emotional support. And yet in the off-season, the team low-balled Brian Rolston, let Pavol Demitra walk without even trying half-heartedly to retain his services, and effectively fired hometown boy Mark Parrish with a contract buyout. These three were the team's second, third, and fourth-leading goal scorers last year, and yet not one got an offseason contract.
And so both sides now are fighting over the amount of cash that the team will throw at Gaborik, knowing full well that the team won't let its one star walk unless it can successfully paint the player as a greedy pig-dog. It would appear that the winger is asking for a contract in the $9 million range, which would vault him into the Ovechkin-Crosby-Lecavalier stratosphere. The team is balking, of course - they know the salary cap won't keep going up forever, and their belt is already uncomfortably tight, bloated with deals for young up-and-coming stars (C Mikko Koivu, D Brent Burns, D Nick Schultz, RW Pierre-Marc Bouchard, et al) along with accidental overpayments (D Kim Johnsson, D Martin Skoula, C Eric Belanger).
So the Wild must find a way to pay Gaborik - preferably before the season starts, since the whole saga has already reached the level of "distraction." This would be nothing compared to the uproar if the team felt forced to cut bait and deal Gaborik for pennies on the dollar, though.
As mentioned above, this is not the same team that won the Northwest Division last season. Rolston, Demitra, and Parrish are gone, along with two-thirds of the Wild's tough guys (Todd Fedoruk and Aaron Voros). In their place comes... well, nobody special, really. Former Wild winger Andrew Brunette is back from Colorado exile, returning after proving wrong the Wild's post-lockout belief that he was too slow to play in the "new NHL." Also in are offensive-minded defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marek Zidlicky, both of whom hope to provide some firepower on a defense that could best be characterized at times last year as "slow." In as well are the under-productive RW Antti Miettinen and the old-and-aging RW Owen Nolan.
Jacques Lemaire has stated publicly that, while last year brought the team's first division title, it was in many ways his most frustrating year. The team lost C Wes Walz to retirement in the early stages of last season, and were thus deprived of their locker-room leader and in many ways the heart and sould of their team. Consequently, Lemaire spent most of the season just trying to get his team to play together, trying to get a chafing Demitra to play center to replace Walz, and trying to get everyone involved pulling in the same direction. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year things started to drag a bit, and Minnesota's early exit from the playoffs really didn't seem too shocking.
The team won't just need a few team-bonding exercises to make another playoff run this season, though. They're counting on Brunette, Miettinen, and Nolan to replace Parrish, Demitra, and Rolston, which seems like a long-shot proposition; and after trying to deal half the team for Olli Jokinen last year they're still desperately short at center. Mikko Koivu has developed into a top-line centerman, but behind him the Wild is stuck with the disappointing Eric Belanger, the 20-year-old sophomore James Sheppard, and then a mismatched cast of rookies and veteran hangers-on. Given that center, in the Lemaire system, is perhaps the most important role on the ice - the man in the middle is responsible for both creating offense and yet acting more or less as a third defenseman - it's a hole the team could do without.
On defense, the team is counting on big contributions from Bergeron and Zidlicky. Brent Burns and Nick Schultz are both young, solid defensemen, and Burns has the makings of the team's next big star - he's the sleeper pick, as he might be the best under-25 defenseman in the league that nobody is talking about. But behind those two is the Kim Johnsson, who's solid if annoyingly bland and overpaid, and disaster-in-waiting Martin Skoula, who continues to see the ice despite generally displaying the talent of a skating chimpanzee. In other words, if no more solid, it's at least a similar group on the blue line this year, and with Niklas Backstrom in goal there's no reason to expect the team's defensive play to swirl down the drain.
And toughness - despite the losses of Fedoruk and Voros, the team still retains LW Derek Boogaard, possibly the league's best fighter and worst offensive forward, and has added RW Craig Weller, from Phoenix, another guy who's not afraid to mix it up. (Gone, thankfully, is near-criminal goon Chris Simon, whom the Wild brought in at the trade deadline for virtually no sane reason, with the possible exception of GM Doug Risebrough channeling the ghost of Hedley Lamarr.)
To paraphrase the old Conn Smythe quote, this is a team that can beat you in the alley. But the question still remains - can it beat anybody on the ice? It'll come down to whether the offense can score enough goals to outpace the occasional defensive lapses, something that happened regularly last season but looks less likely to happen this year.
And you know what would be a big help to the team in reaching that goal? A rich, happy, and offensively-rampant Marian Gaborik. All that remains to be seen is what kind of riches he'll demand.