Gaborik Unleashed: How the Minnesota Wild Almost Ruined Hockey
Watching Marian Gaborik's explosive start to this season (10 goals, 18 points in his first 12 games—Rangers fans have to be hoping this isn't the end of the line for him ), I've had a recurring thought: How does Gaborik not have a 50-goal season?
That thought is usually followed by the realization Gaborik played for the Minnesota Wild for eight seasons, all of them coached by the notoriously defensive-minded Jacques Lemaire. Now playing for the notoriously offensive-minded John Tortorella in New York, Gaborik finally has the freedom to fully live up to his full scoring potential.
It's been exciting to watch, but it raises an interesting question: Is it in the best interest of the NHL for its best offensive players to languish in defensive systems? Would Gaborik's 42-goal season in 2007-08 been 50 goals under a different type of coach?
Hockey is a complex game with a lot of variables. Scoring is key, but so are defense and goaltending and line combinations and special teams. But fans love scoring. It's universally loved by fans and by non-fans. And if you look at the changes in officiating and rules that the NHL has instituted post-lockout, just about all of them are designed to promote scoring.
So if the league wants to see more scoring, how could they let an exciting player be hidden for so long? How could they let a coaching system smother a possible marketing hook?
Gaborik is hardly the only example of offensive talent being smothered by coaching. The Devils have also done this before. Up until last season, the Devils tended to play defense-oriented hockey. But even frequently relying on a trapping style, the myriad of Devils coaches have found ways to keep their offense-minded forwards (usually Patrik Elias) putting up decent numbers. But defensemen have really suffered in the system.
You can see the suffering in the numbers of defensemen Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer, two longtime Devils who eventually left the team to play in more offensive systems.
Niedermayer averaged over eight goals and 28 assists per season as a Devil. As a member of the Ducks, he's averaged over 12 goals and 36 assists per season. And keep in mind, Nidermayer's time as a Duck has been in his later years, where he's well past his prime.
Rafalski averaged around six goals and 38 assists per season with the Devils. With Detroit, he's averaged over 11 goals and 45 assists per season over the past two seasons, meaning Rafalski has nearly doubled his per season goal output in a different kind of system.
So what can the league do about this? Unfortunately, not much. For one thing, for certain players, like Rafalski, you don't realize just how good they are until they're playing someplace else.
But also, the league can't step in and tell coaches to coach differently. That could set a dangerously bad precedent. However, the league can talk to owners about marketing, and how a high-flying scorer can translate into more fans buying tickets, buying t-shirts, and even watching games on TV. And hopefully, owners will share that information with their coaches.
Defense is an important part of the NHL game, and no one wants to see it disappear. But it's best for the league when players play up to and past their potential—either defensively or offensively.
Great players should be allowed to put up great numbers and fans should get to see that.
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