If Marian Gaborik ends this season wearing the sweater of a team other than the Columbus Blue Jackets, he shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, it was made clear from the start that this campaign would serve as an audition for the veteran sniper, who was acquired by the Jackets from the New York Rangers ahead of last year’s trade deadline.
“We want to get more familiar with him, get to know him better,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen during the summer. “Sure, we’re thinking about [an extension] already, but we’re going to let it go into the season, hope to see him score a lot of goals for us and then talk about getting him extended.”
So far there haven’t been a lot of goals, or much of anything else, from the impending free agent. In fact, it’s looking less likely that an extension to his current deal will be a priority for the Jackets . . . and that trading the 31-year-old before he gets to free agency this summer will.
A rash move by a team struggling out of the gate? Not exactly. Sure, it wasn’t that long ago that Gaborik was a legitimate impact player. He was full value for the Rangers in 2011-12, scoring 41 goals and 76 points while skating in all 82 games. But he wasn’t as effective last season, either before or after the trade to the Jackets.
And the deterioration in his game is more evident this year. He’s still putting up decent numbers — Gaborik has eight goals and 19 points in 29 career games with Columbus — but he’s not the game-breaking threat he once was, a state emphasized by his current eight-game scoring drought.
But it isn’t just a red-light shortage that’s the problem. It’s that he’s not generating chances. Gaborik has never been a volume shooter — even in 2007-08, his most prolific season, he averaged just over 3.5 shots per game — but he’s someone who was always around the puck. That urgency has disappeared this year, along with the zip on his once-lethal wrister.
And his legendary speed? The only place to see that on display is YouTube.
“Yeah, he seems to [have lost a step],” a scout told SI.com. “There’s not that explosive shift in gears. That’s always been the key to his game, that ability to just turn it on and leave [a defender] in his dust. I don’t know what’s going on there now.”
The Jackets have shown patience with Gaborik, but you could sense that it was wearing thin when Kekalainen took the unusual step of going public with his expectations just two weeks ago.
“He could be the driving force of the team,” Kekalainen told The Columbus Dispatch. “I’d like to see him taking charge, driving the team with his example — not only with the points but with everything else he does.
“He’s at the point in his career where he could take the next step in that area. He’s proven he can score points, score goals. I want to believe that even a 30-year-old or a 35-year-old player can get better, and that’s one area that I want to see more from him.”
That’s a fair request of a player making $7.5 million per year who might like to stay in the same ballpark with his next deal. But in the six games since his GM spoke up, Gaborik has put up one assist, a minus-3 rating and averaged fewer than two shots per contest, while offering little in the way of leadership or two-way play.
Not exactly what you’d call rising to the challenge.
Gaborik will eventually work his way out of the offensive slump, but that might not be enough to convince the Jackets that he’s someone they want as part of the long-term solution.
They can, after all, replace his scoring. Nathan Horton, signed over the summer to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract, is nearing his return from off-season shoulder surgery. He began skating last week, and should be in the lineup by early December.
That redundancy on right wing, criticized by many over the summer, gives Kekalainen considerable flexibility moving forward and puts the ball squarely in Gaborik’s court. If he wants to stay, he has to prove there’s more to his game than he’s shown so far this season.
It wouldn’t be easy for Kekalainen to essentially admit that his first big deal as GM of the Jackets was a bust. But if it was a mistake, if Gaborik is not part of the solution, it’s better to come to grips with it now than a year or two into a long-term, high-dollar extension.