If Marian Gaborik feels the pressure of carrying a franchise's hopes and a city's dreams, he doesn't show it.
Embarking on his first full season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, there's no question that Gaborik is the linchpin of the team's offense. Coming off the worst of his dozen seasons in the NHL, very big things are expected from the three-time All-Star.
"That's why I'm here," he said of the weight of being the club's No. 1 offensive threat. "At the same time, I want to provide anything that it takes to win games, not just scoring. I want to be an all-around player and help the team in any way."
Seven times he has scored at least 30 goals in a season, including three times he has topped 40. Yet last year, slowed by a torn abdominal muscle, he mustered just 12 goals in 47 games. He was dealt by the drama-a-day New York Rangers at the deadline for forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore.
Gaborik played well down the stretch as the Blue Jackets went 19-5-5 and missed out on the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Now, despite his off year, everyone in Columbus is expecting him to explode.
"People get caught up in a certain year's statistics. Just look over the guy's whole career," forward R.J. Umberger said. "I mean, he scores goals — he's done it since he started playing hockey. Sometimes guys go through ups and downs. He knows how to score and he'll score a ton for us."
The prevailing opinion is that the 31-year-old Slovakian has been too good for too long to not have a great season.
"He plays that game where you might not notice him and then all of a sudden — BOOM! — he takes off and it's in the back of the net," forward Nick Foligno said. "That's the kind of elite player that he is. He's so dynamic and plays the game at such a high level that even if you try to contain him, he's so hard to hold.
"We're excited about having him for a full season."
The Blue Jackets are built on hard work and the brick wall in net provided by Sergei Bobrovsky, last year's Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top netminder. They have a cadre of double-figure goal-scorers such as Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Mark Letestu, Umberger, Foligno and offseason free-agent signing Nathan Horton. They're also counting on a group of young wingers — Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen and Matt Calvert — to provide an uptick in offense.
Still, Gaborik's is probably the only name on the roster that would get the attention of an opposing defense.
And the Blue Jackets' youngsters are awed by him.
"He's an elite talent. The number of goals he's put up in the league already (336, to go with 338 assists in 769 games) is amazing," said the pesty, disruptive Calvert. "To have a guy like that, to have that offensive ability, when we do need that big goal in the last minute, he gets the puck on his tape after we find him and he's going to put it in the back of the net.
"That's always reassuring."
Funny, but Gaborik almost began his career in Columbus. There was a coin flip before the 2000 draft to find out which of the two new expansion franchises, the Blue Jackets or Minnesota Wild, would pick No. 3 and which would go next.
Of course, the Blue Jackets, with a history of bad trades, bad teams, bad players and bad luck, lost. Gaborik went to the Wild and the Blue Jackets took defenseman Rostislav Klesla, a serviceable journeyman on the blueline, now with Phoenix.
Gaborik developed into one of the most feared snipers in the league. When the Rangers made him available at the trade deadline, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and director of hockey operations John Davidson jumped at the chance to add such a prolific scorer.
"Having a player like Gaborik changes us," Davidson said.
Always one of the fastest skaters in the league with one of the quickest shots, Gaborik appears to be as quick as ever, healthy and energized by his new surroundings.
He knows the offensive burden he carries.
"Obviously, scoring is going to be very important, but you can't go out there thinking, 'I have to score. I have to score,'" he said. "You just have to focus on other parts of the game as well. The goals will come when you work hard and do your job."
Coach Todd Richards likes what he's seen out of Gaborik in training camp.
"I sense that he's focused, he's ready to work," he said. "And he's ready to have a good season."
This is the final year of Gaborik's contract. The Blue Jackets say they want to negotiate with him once the season gets started. It's unsaid, but they want to see if the occasionally laconic player is motivated to have, well, a vintage Gaborik season.
"It's a big year for us, and for myself as well," he said. "I'm not thinking about contracts right now. I'll go out, have fun, enjoy myself, play hard and things will work out."
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