ST. PAUL, Minn. – On the eve of the season opener, the Minnesota Wild were all but certain to miss their first goal. Marian Gaborik has begun the final year of his contract without an extension in place, a potential distraction both sides vowed to avoid.
But Gaborik insisted this week he’s not thinking about his status, even though the possibility of a trade has now increased. The team doesn’t want to lose him next summer to free agency, without getting any players or draft picks back.
“I just want to play, you know?” he said. “Enjoy it. Have fun. I’ve said it numerous times: I’m going to go out there, have fun, work hard – and that’s all I want to do.”
When asked whether he was bracing himself for the extra attention as long as a deal remains unsigned, Gaborik repeated his claim.
“I’m not just saying that. It’s how I feel,” he said.
So as the Wild charged toward Saturday night’s opener against Boston, they were still unsure whether the franchise’s original and only true star would finish the season in Minnesota – let alone his promising career.
“If it’s affecting our team and affecting what’s going on in the dressing room, I have confidence that Gabby’s going to just get rid of it,” centre James Sheppard said. “He’s not going to let it affect the team. He’s a guy that I have confidence in. I’m sure that he wouldn’t want that to happen.”
Coach Jacques Lemaire has maintained that the distraction of an unresolved contract would be Gaborik’s alone.
“It’s not my answer on this. It’s yes or no. It’s his. Myself, I can’t do nothing about it except make sure he’s in good health and good shape to play the best he can.”
The Wild honoured Gaborik with the captain’s jersey for the first time in their history last March, an honour that continued into the playoffs. But centre Mikko Koivu, poised to take over as the team’s top talent should Gaborik depart, was awarded the captaincy before Friday’s practice at Parade Ice Garden.
“You know you did something right, and that’s a big part of it – not only on the ice but off the ice as well,” Koivu said. “That’s something that players appreciate.”
Lemaire mixes up his lines all the time, but he’s been using Sheppard to centre a group with Gaborik and Stephane Veilleux. Koivu has been joined by Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, and Eric Belanger has been centring newcomer Owen Nolan and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Craig Weller and Derek Boogaard are the wings on the checking line, with Benoit Pouliot between them. Rookie Colton Gillies also made the opening night roster.
The Wild are banking on veterans Nolan and Brunette to replace the scoring and leadership lost when Brian Rolston signed with New Jersey. They acknowledged letting Brunette leave as a free agent three years ago was a mistake.
An offensive upgrade to the blue line was an off-season priority, and Marek Zidlicky, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Tomas Mojzis were brought in to supplement returning defencemen Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson, Nick Schultz and Martin Skoula. Erik Reitz is also on the roster, and Kurtis Foster is on injured reserve as he continues to recover from a badly broken leg. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are back in the net.
Though they’ll take the ice against the Bruins as defending Northwest Division champions, the Wild aren’t on the hot list of Western Conference contenders in the eyes of most analysts. Scoring has never been their strength, and they must prove they have enough guys who can get goals without Rolston, Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish.
Starting strong will be important, with a stretch of 14 out of 17 games on the road looming on the schedule in late February and early March.
“You don’t want to play catch up at the end of the season,” Lemaire said. “You’re 10 points behind to make the playoffs, and it seems like everybody wins when you win and everybody loses when you lose and you never move up. But if you have the lead, you let the other team to do it.”