Marian Gaborik has a reputation for being the most fragile man in the National Hockey League. Case in point: over the past four seasons, the dynamic-when-available winger has played in a mere 63 percent of his team's games when not missing time with chronic groin and hip ailments.
The injuries, combined by an irreparable breach between Gaborik and the Wild's previous management, led to his departure from Minnesota this summer. Seizing on the opportunity, Glen Sather and the New York Rangers plunked down $37.5 million on No. 10 and let it ride. Good bet -- there's ample reason to believe that his problems are finally fixed. So the hockey world had better get ready for the new and improved Marian Gaborik, the man who will be the Most Valuable Player in the NHL this season.
You heard it here: the 27-year-old Slovak will win the Hart Trophy.
Quick, what does Gaborik have in common with the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley and the Arizona Cardinals' Kurt Warner? They all had surgeries to alleviate femoral acetabular impingement in their hips. And A-Rod, Utley and Warner not only returned quickly to their sports, but returned with MVP-caliber seasons. So why not Gaborik?
In addition to having confidence in the fix, we now have a better explanation of Gaborik's checkered injury history. Until recently, there was little understanding in sports medicine that hip problems can manifest themselves as groin pain. If the root of the problem had previously been known, Gaborik may not have gained a reputation as a chronically injured player. His body and his reputation could have been mended earlier.
So the rest of NHL should be scared. Not only is Gaborik healthy, but he should now be performing at an even higher level than we saw from 2005-06 to 2007-08, when he scored 1.08 points per game while registering a 15.2 percent shooting percentage. Since his most recent hip labrum surgery, which amounts to roughly half a season -- 17 games for Minnesota in 2008-09 and 22 for New York in 2009-10 -- the rejuvenated Gaborik has scored 1.44 points per game with the assistance of a 21.3 percent shooting percentage.
If Gaborik could have played 82 games and scored on even a diminished 19.0 percent of his shots -- assuming some regression from his recent 21.3 percent clip -- imagine what his seasons could have been from 2005-06 through 2008-09, and what this season could be:
Projecting A Healthy Gaborik
Marian Gaborik could've been an MVP-caliber player all along, had his groin pain been diagnosed as a hip injury sooner.
Season GP G A P P/GP Shots S%
2005-06 82 60 36 96 1.17 318 19.0%
2006-07 82 64 46 110 1.34 335 19.0%
2007-08 82 56 44 100 1.22 296 19.0%
2008-09 82 62 49 111 1.35 328 19.0%
2009-10 82 58 52 110 1.34 306 19.0%
If you think that 62 goals, 49 assists and 111 points for 2008-09 would have looked good, you're right. Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin "only" tallied 56 goals, 54 assists and 110 points.
By definition, the Hart Trophy is given to the "player adjudged most valuable to his team." This may help Gaborik in some voters' eyes, as the Rangers have gone 0-2 while scoring three goals with Gaborik out of the lineup, while the Capitals have gone 4-2 while scoring 21 goals without Ovechkin, who's likely to be his stiffest competition. There's no denying the Slovakian sniper's value to the Broadway Blues, which can be directly measured by the Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) metric. As of Nov. 26, Gaborik has been worth 7.6 additional goals on offense and 1.8 additional goals on defense for the Rangers, while he's cost the Blue Shirts 0.2 goals in the shootout.
Using Ovie's 33.1 GVT and 27.1 GVT totals over the last two seasons as benchmarks for an MVP-caliber season, consider that Gaborik's 9.2 GVT through 21 games -- best among all skaters to date -- extrapolates to 35.0 GVT if he plays in all of New York's remaining games.
Comparing Perennial MVP Candidates
Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) of perennial Hart Trophy caliber skaters, as of Nov. 26.
Name Team GP OGVT DGVT SGVT GVT GVT/GP
Marian Gaborik NYR 21 7.6 1.8 -0.2 9.2 0.44
Zach Parise NJD 21 5.6 2.3 0.6 8.5 0.40
Anze Kopitar LAK 24 6.7 1.7 0.1 8.4 0.35
Alex Ovechkin WSH 18 6.5 1.1 0.1 7.6 0.42
Dany Heatley SJS 25 6.0 0.8 0.3 7.1 0.28
Sidney Crosby PIT 24 3.3 1.1 2.1 6.5 0.27
Joe Thornton SJS 25 5.5 1.1 -0.2 6.4 0.26
Henrik Zetterberg DET 22 4.3 1.4 0.6 6.2 0.28
Chris Pronger PHI 21 3.5 2.5 0.0 6.0 0.29
Pavel Datsyuk DET 20 3.7 1.0 0.8 5.5 0.28
Patrick Kane CHI 22 4.3 1.4 -0.2 5.5 0.25
Evgeni Malkin PIT 17 3.4 0.9 -0.2 4.0 0.24
One problem with imagining the former first-round pick as MVP is that he doesn't make the highlight reel plays that Ovechkin makes. Aside from world class speed that allows him to get out on frequent breakaways, Gaborik's primary skills are a lightning quick release and deadly accurate shot. Rarely will you see Gaborik beat a defender with a one-on-one move or deke the goalie. He just hits the spots before the goalie can get to them. In fact, Gaborik's hideous 6.7 percent career shooting percentage in the shootout -- strangely, a fraction of his 15 to 21 percent in-game shooting percentage -- underlines his one-on-one deficiencies. Has there ever been a Hart Trophy winner as vanilla? One example is Joe Thornton's 2005-06 campaign. Thornton certainly lacked the typical firepower of an MVP -- as he scored only 29 goals that season -- though voters rewarded him for leading the league with 125 points.
Gaborik seems to finally have found the silver bullet that's taken care of his injury woes, though public perception has not yet caught up with that fact. In addition to his increased availability, the quality of his play has improved now that he can play pain free. Believe it or not, Gaborik is likely to play in most of the Rangers' remaining games and to put up 50 or 60 goals. Alex Ovechkin will give him a run for his money, but at the end of the day, Gaborik will win the 2009-10 Hart Trophy.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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