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Can Brad Richards revive Marian Gaborik’s career in New York?

Jul 14, 2011, 5:04 PM EDT

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Getty Images

For one season, Marian Gaborik silenced critics who howled with laughter after the New York Rangers signed him to a risky five-year, $37.5 million contract. Gaborik played in 76 games in 2009-10 – not a small feat for the fragile winger – while tying a career high in goals scored (42) and setting a new high in total points (86). Gaborik was a consistent threat on a team that was very thin offensively that season, playing more than 21 minutes per game.

What’s to blame for Gaborik’s lousy 2010-11?

Of course, the question wasn’t ever really about Gaborik’s skill. The injury bug caught up to Gaborik to some extent last season, but even then, his lower productivity was noticeable. Even in other injury-ravaged seasons, Gaborik would approach or even best the point per game level. (He scored 23 points in his 17 games during his last season with the Minnesota Wild in 08-09.) Something was different in 10-11, though, as he only managed 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games.

When the NY Post’s Larry Brooks discussed Gaborik’s struggles, he pointed to injuries (Gaborik’s season was derailed by a separated shoulder and concussion issues) but also to a bevy of lackluster centers.

Fact is, Gaborik, who was limited to 62 matches primarily because of an early season separated shoulder and a late-season concussion, opened 21 times with Erik Christensen as his pivot; 21 times with Derek Stepan; 14 times with Artem Anisimov; five times with Vinny Prospal; and once with Chris Drury. Beyond that, Gaborik never started more than seven straight games with the same center, with that dubious milestone achieved with Anisimov from Jan. 16 through Feb. 1.

That brings up an interesting question: were Gaborik’s linemates that much better in 2009-10? Dobber Hockey’s line combination stats reveal that he spent the majority of his time with a combination of three players in 09-10: Erik Christensen, Brandon Dubinsky and Vaclav Prospal. Really, though, there are only two major differences between those combinations and the 10-11 ones: he enjoyed less stability and didn’t line up with Dubinsky very often, instead drawing time with Artem Anisimov and Sean Avery last season.

Can Brad Richards save the day?

Now, there’s no denying that having more consistent linemates (and having more time with Dubinsky, one of the Rangers’ best forwards) might have helped Gaborik’s cause, but does that explain him dropping from an outstanding 1.13 point per game average to .77, the third-worst rate of his 10-year career?

The more important question is the one Brooks posed, though: can Brad Richards revive the free-falling Gaborik? One thing seems tough to deny: Richards is leaps and bounds better than any center Gaborik’s ever played with in the NHL.

For the first time since Wayne Gretzky’s first year on Broadway in 1996-97, the Rangers have an elite play-making pivot. And while it would be an overstatement to suggest the Blueshirts decided to pay Richards $60 million as a free agent simply to form a partnership with Gaborik, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that the 31-year-old Slovak’s plight and needs weren’t significant factors in the signing.

“I respect all the players I’ve been with but I am very excited to get the chance to play with Richie,” Gaborik told The Post by phone yesterday. “I’ve watched him play throughout his career and always admired his game; the way he sees the ice, the way he moves the puck, the way he makes his teammates better.

How much does Richards improve his linemates? James Neal‘s 2010-11 season might be the best recent example, although it’s important to note how small the sample is. Neal scored 21 goals and 39 points in 59 games playing primarily with Richards and (fellow 2010-11 All Star) Loui Eriksson in Dallas. After being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal’s numbers plummeted to one goal and six points in 20 games. While it would be silly to draw too many conclusions from that drop (especially considering the offensive troubles in Pittsburgh), it did seem like Neal’s production suffered without Richards sending him beautiful passes.

Lots of big “ifs” for next season’s Rangers

Glen Sather’s haphazard team-building leaves the Rangers with an annual slew of huge “if” scenarios. That said, the Richards addition makes the questions a bit more tantalizing than usual. The Rangers could have two strong offensive lines if they re-sign Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, if Richards can find chemistry with Gaborik and if Gaborik can stay healthy.

The Richards-Gaborik scenario will cost more than $14 million in cap space and $19.75 million in salary during the 2011-12 season, but at least there’s a better chance that they won’t waste $7.5 million on an ineffective Gaborik. Still, if Sather hadn’t sidestepped a million bullets already, one would have to wonder if he will still be the Rangers’ general manager if the team the Rangers miss the playoffs this year.

  1. hanktheking - Jul 14, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Again? They made the playoffs this year. Without Richards.

    • James O'Brien - Jul 14, 2011 at 6:47 PM

      Thanks for catching that.

  2. bbk1000 - Jul 14, 2011 at 7:56 PM

    I’m almost convinced Sather will never be fired…mini D (Jim) loves him for some reason, remember Isaiah, IMO he is one of the worst owners in sports….

    • stakex - Jul 14, 2011 at 11:29 PM

      The Rangers owners just care about selling tickets. I go to a few Rangers games a year, and even when they were at their worst…. they still fill the garden. So long as thats the case, Sather can do what ever he wants and hes not going to get fired. I mean if the owners really cared, Sather would have been fired after one of his many (and there are many) debacles. Debacles such as:

      1. Signing Bobby Holik to a 5 year, $45 million contract in 2002 (he was bought out in 2005 after the lockout).

      2. Signing Darius Kasparitus to a 6 year, $25 million contract when he had just 20 goals in his career that was at that point 12 years old.

      NOTE: Both of those were pre-cap

      3. Re-signing Michael Rozsival to a 4 year, $20 million contract after Rozsival had already become hated by the Rangers fans for his lack of physical play and a horrible tendency to turn the puck over at the worst time.

      4. Signing both Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to contracts that were far beyond their ability. What really hurt with this move was not only the huge cap hit the Rangers had to take for a couple second line players… but the fact that they were paying bigt bucks for offense they never recieved. No one can blame Drury or Gomez though…. it was Sather who magicaly expected better numbers from both then they had ever produced.

      5. Signing Wade Redden to a (jaw dropping) 6 year, $39 million contract. By far Sathers biggest mistake… and one that has mad Redden the highest paid player in the AHL. This was another “Wish” contract on Sathers part in which he was expecting massive amounts of production from a guy who was clearly on the downward side of his career.

      ——

      Thats not even getting into smaller yet still painful mistakes… such Boogard $1.5 million a year for 4 years, Brashear $2.8 million a year for 2 years, and hiring Bryan Trottier. There are a lot of other examples of Sather over paying forp layers but those are the main ones. Lets also not forget this is the man who traded Brian Leetch, a life long and very loyal Ranger, at the twilight of his career (and he was still productive I might add), for almost no return. While not really a bad financial move… it was a kick in the teeth to Leetch who clearly wanted to retire a Ranger, and something many fans were very pissed about.

      Add all that up and it means one thing: The owners do not care what Sather does. If they did, he would have been fired years ago…

  3. sbs0311 - Jul 14, 2011 at 8:44 PM

    Dubinsky and Callahan will be signed, but the Rangers need to shuffle their lines so Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan do not get stuck with so much defensive responsibility.

    Boyle and Prust form a very good checking line base. Put Fedotenko on on the RW and you have three guy who are defensively responsible and capable of 15 goals each with Boyle looking like a 20-25 guy. The line has size, speed, and a defensive commitment.

    Problem then becomes that Derek Stepan gets left out in the cold based on the Rangers’ current plans. What they need to do is move the worst Face-Off guy in the NHL to the wing. Why not let him see if he can play with Richards and Gaborik? 21 goals and 45 points as a 20-year-old rookie show he could blossom w/two linemates like that.

    Let Avery-Rupp-[fill in the blank] take the fourth-line minutes and you have a balanced, dangerous lineup.

    • stakex - Jul 14, 2011 at 11:33 PM

      I think its a mistake to bury Avery on the 4th line. He has speed, really good hands, and is a very under rated play maker. Throw in the fact he can put the puck in the net, and loves to shoot… and he can make a very good 3rd line player, or even a solid second line player.

      He just doesn’t get much of a chance with the Rangers right now because Torts hates him.

      Also, don’t expect 20-25 goals from Boyle. Until he proves otherwise, last year will remain a fluke.

    • hanktheking - Jul 15, 2011 at 3:12 PM

      Completely agree with this lineup, however i think Callahan and Dubinsky are too valuable defensively to not always have that line in those situations.

  4. sbs0311 - Jul 15, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    A fluke? Give me a break. So players aren’t allowed to improve? He scored at a good rate in the AHL — was not his fault the Kings buried him.

    His second season in the NHL, he breaks through. It’s not like it was a random 5th year occurrence.

    That statement is baseless.

    • stakex - Jul 15, 2011 at 1:52 PM

      Baseless? Its not baseless at all… in fact its very logical.

      First of all, a college/AHL record means nothing. A lot of guys light it up in college and in the AHL and then flatline when they hit the NHL.

      Anyway, look at the numbers close from last season. Boyle scored 21 goals last year… but the vast majority of them were in the first half of the season. In the second half he scored only 5 goals. It should also be noted that he averaged MORE ice time in the second half of the season, yet his production fell off the face of the earth when compared to the first half. Sure sounds like said scoring outburst might have been a fluke to me, based only on the facts.

      Your simply looking at one half of last season and expecting that Boyle is going to play exaclly like that all of next season. Yet there was an entire second half of the season that contrasts with that. If Boyle plays this season with the pace he did the entire second half of last year he will score a grand total of just 10 goals… a far cry from 25 and much closer to his previous NHL pace. As a Rangers fan I would love for Boyle to score 25 goals next season, but as a realist I know thats unlikely. As I said before, with the way Boyle played for the second half of last season its now on him to prove the first half was not a fluke.

      Baseless? Seems like my statement was the only one based on the facts. Do some research next time, like I did before I made my statement.

  5. johnnymotto - Jul 17, 2011 at 6:59 PM

    James, good article, but did it ever factor into your thinking that the system Tortorella employed this year also contributed to Gaborik’s down year? Jesse Spector touched on this (as does Andrew Gross) in the NYDN.

    Gaborik isnt a grind player, hes a finesse player who flourishes with open ice, and he doesnt carry the puck. He was forced to A) carry the puck, and B) grind it out in corners. You dont sign an elite sniper to a 7.5 cap hit and then say “okay, go play like Brandon Prust.” If you want another grinder, just sign them on the cheap.

    Tortorella needs to get his head out of his ass and let Gaborik go back to playing his game, while still being defensively responsible (which he did all last year). Its not really about who his center is (hes scored 42 twice, and hit 30 goals four times, one of them being 38), with no elite center. He scored 42 goals just two years ago with Erik “waiver wire” Christensen and Vinny “one leg” Prospal. Again, its not so much about him necessarily needing an elite pivot to produce, but when you dont have one and youre playing in a system not conducive to your style, injuries on top, youre bound to have a season Gaborik did (despite still being 2nd in points on the team mind you).

    His talent didnt vanish overnight. One thing needs to happen to let Gaborik go back to being himself and thats Tortorella letting him play his game. If he does that, Gaborik is 40-40, and Richards can make him a 50-50 player, no question. These two are made for eachother on the ice.

  6. johnnymotto - Jul 17, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    Lemaire was a defense first coach, and Gaborik still was virtually a PPG. I think a grinding it out style system that Tortorella employed last year (due to lack of talent) is the problem, and he doesnt work as well in it. I dont want Gaborik grinding it out and getting garbage goals, I want him in the open areas wripping shots in the net like he did in 09/10, and getting breakaways.

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