Marian Gaborik's Problem in Minnesota: Injuries or Lemaire?

Blake BenzelCorrespondent IDecember 10, 2009

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 5:  Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers skates during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena on December 5, 2009 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Marian Gaborik has moved on, and in a big way.  But there is one constant that will remain with Wild fans for the remainder of what will likely be an illustrious career—what could have been.

Gaborik was always a prodigious talent, but along with that talent came a grand enigma.  For whatever reason, he could never quite shake the injury bug that nagged at him over his last four seasons with the Minnesota Wild.  Playing in just 63 percent of his team’s games over the last four seasons in St. Paul, Gaborik missed 121 games due to injury.

Of those seasons, however, Gaborik enjoyed some of his best production in the NHL.  He was just never healthy enough to capitalize on them.

But the question that will likely never be answered is whether or not Gaborik’s lack of numbers for the team was due to his injuries or due to the coaching style of Jacques Lemaire.

Lemaire is often credited as being the man that single-handedly ruined the NHL.

His signature system came to be known as the dreaded “Neutral Zone Trap.”  The idea behind this system, for the uninitiated, is that the defensive team has just one forechecker.  The forechecker’s responsibility is to force the play to one side of the ice or the other.

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Once the play moves towards one side of the ice, the players rotate so that the only way for the puck to go is up the boards, clogging the neutral zone and either a) forcing a turnover or b) forcing the attacking team to dump the puck deep into the offensive zone, thereby allowing the defensive team an opportunity to regain possession of the puck without giving up a quality scoring chance.

Don’t worry.  If you’re fading, so am I, and I’m the one doing the writing.

The trap is designed to be a counter-attacking style and, in fact, it was the style that helped the same Montreal Canadiens that Lemaire played for to their dominance.

The distinguishing feature of the trap is the forecheck—what is called a 1-2-2 forecheck.  But there is a common misconception that not every team uses this style.  They do.

Anyone who thinks they don't just needs to watch the last five to 10 minutes of any NHL game. If there’s a team with the lead, odds are they have pulled back into this style of system.

It looks different with every coach running it, but it is essentially like football’s prevent defensive scheme.  Everyone uses it at one point or another.

One hallmark of Lemaire’s system, however, was the lack of goals that it created for the Wild.

In Lemaire’s tenure with the team, not once was it above the league median for goals scored in a season.  Indeed, Lemaire relied on a suffocating defensive system and opportunistic scoring to win games.

During Gaborik’s time with the team, it seemed as if every single media outlet was bringing up the fact that it was so obviously Lemaire’s system that was stifling the Slovakian sniper.  Were it not for Lemaire’s “trap,” they would say, Gaborik could have been a 100-plus point man and even the first 70-plus goal scorer since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each potted 76 in the 1992-93 season.

But was it Lemaire’s system that stifled Gaborik?  Or was it his own fault?

It was always noted that Gaborik, though he always came to training camp in tremendous shape, was not always the best about maintaining his fitness level during the offseason.  He had a penchant for enjoying the finer things in life and it was very rare that he would even loosen up properly once he got to training camp.

By the 2007-08 season, Gaborik had begun a stretching regimen that kept his hips and groin limber—a regimen that led to a 77-game season, his highest total since the lockout.

This was supposed to be an upturn in the career of the young Slovak.  Gaborik set career highs in goals, assists and points, as well as plus/minus rating.  Going into a career season, he was supposed to cash in big time.

But he hadn’t shaken the injury bug and was limited to just 17 games in the 2008-09 campaign, which helped in the team’s disappointing finish—one that ultimately led to the resignation of Lemaire and the subsequent firing of general manager Doug Risebrough.

But what of Gaborik’s production during these “injured” years?

In the 2005-06 season, Gaborik played just 65 games.  Were he to have played a full season, he was on pace to have netted 48 goals and 83 points.  The following season he played just 48 games.  Again, were he to have played a full 82-game schedule, he was on pace to have 52 goals and 98 points.  The 2007-08 season we’ll call a wash, since it was Gaborik’s healthiest season since the lockout. But the 2008-09 season was a disaster.  Gaborik played just 17 games; however, had he played a full schedule and kept up his pace (which is comparable to this season’s pace), he would have tallied an impressive 62 goals and 110 points.

Can you pinpoint exactly where Gaborik’s lack of production was tied to Lemaire’s system?

Consider that, under Lemaire, Zach Parise is on pace to break his career-high totals this season.  Lemaire’s system obviously isn’t hampering him.

Look at Brian Rolston.

With the Wild, under Lemaire, Rolston had a career year during the 2005-06 season, scoring 30-plus goals.

Richard Park?

Park, who had never scored more than five goals during a season, became a player who was consistently scoring between 10 and 15 goals per season.

Alexander Daigle?

Daigle, a player who was cast off by numerous NHL organizations enjoyed one of his best seasons with the Wild in 2003-04.

The bottom line here is that Marian Gaborik’s lack of production for the Minnesota Wild had little or nothing to do with Lemaire.

Lemaire is a coach notorious for being able to get the most out of his players and did just that with a Minnesota Wild team that overachieved most years.

It should be noted that this is not a knock on Gaborik.  While I personally did not like him with the Wild, he was a fantastic player for the team and did a lot of good for them.

But quite simply, the fact that he did not explode like many thought he would was of no fault of Jacques Lemaire’s.

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