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Buying time with Marian Gaborik

By Tom

Some of the best commentary comes from conversations – real or virtual, matters not – with friends.  Such a conversation happened today, and I thought I’d share some of it.

My friend (Let’s call him Steve, for I don’t believe I know anyone associated with Columbus Blue Jackets hockey named Steve) and I were swapping notes on the trade deadline and what’s come out of it.  Of course, the acquisition of Marian Gaborik was front and center.  Like most conversations about Gaborik, one can’t help but tie the summer’s Rick Nash for Brandon Dubinsky/Artem Anisimov/Tim Erixson/First round pick trade to last week’s Gaborik for Derick Brassard/Derek Dorsett/John Moore trade.  In essence, the Blue Jackets and New York Rangers swapped star-level players and a handful of supporting cast members over the course of the two trades.  Taken as a whole, it looks like the mother of all “change of scenery” trades.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve suggested that the beauty of the Gaborik trade was that the team brought some elite talent back onto the roster but only for a couple years as Gaborik’s contract expires at the end of the 2013-14 season.  That one season past this just might be enough, he suggested, to buy the CBJ time to let their young core of emerging stars develop and take the reins of their team.  

Oh yes, I was thinking.  I like that.  But like all good conversations, this one made me mull it over a tad further.

First, there’s the “Nash v. Gaborik” component.  Gaborik is signed through the end of 2013-14.  He spent some time in Rangers’ coach John Tortorella’s dog house, and he has an injury history (referred to in my prior post).  Without questioning his talent or skill, there was an element of risk in trading for Gaborik.  Can he rediscover his scoring touch?  Can he stay healthy?  Just simple, but very reasonable questions.  But here’s the catch.  If it works out for Gaborik and the CBJ in Columbus, he’ll perhaps be ready to sign another deal.  If it doesn’t work out, everyone shakes hands at the end of next season and moves along their way.

Nash, on the other hand, is under contract through the end of 2017-18.  Has he been healthier than Gaborik?  Sure.  Is he a better scorer than Gaborik?  That’s arguable.  Does a $7.8 million cap hit contract with a no movement clause that runs for the next five seasons make it hard for a team to reconstruct itself?  Yuppers, especially as the salary cap is dropping by nearly $10 million next season.  So Gaborik provides badly needed scoring ability without crippling the Blue Jackets’ long term plans.

Beyond that Gaborik v. Nash component, however, there’s the more intriguing part…that of what I will suggest is a generational push.  Keeping in mind that players are relative babies at 19 years old and wise old men by 35, generational cohorts span much less time than you see out in society.  Baby boomers, for example, cover those born between the end of World War II and roughly 1960.  That’s a 15-year span – or the entire population of a hockey team.

Hockey’s cohort time frames are much tighter…probably something more resembling 3-5 year groupings.  Teams like Pittsburgh have a cohort of players – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang – that are all either 25 or 26 years old.  Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is the old man of the cohort at 28.  The span from 25 to 28 years old?  3 years.  Of course there are older players who are still contributing well into their 30′s and younger players on the roster (but not as many as you would think), but that core cohort is driving the train in Pittsburgh.  Penguins management knows this, as well, as general manager Ray Shero recently made mention of the need to go for Stanley Cup glory now, while his team had this core entering their playing primes together.

Now, let’s look at the Blue Jackets.  Where’s our cohort of stars that a general manager can build around?  I’ll suggest it’s Sergei Bobrovsky (24 years old), Cam Atkinson (23), Matt Calvert (23), Dalton Prout (23), Tim Erixon (22), Ryan Johansen (20) and perhaps 2012 top draft pick Ryan Murray (19).  Johansen is a slight outlier, but he started his NHL career so early that he’s probably playing beyond his years right now.  But whereas Shero is looking at relatively mature 25 and 26 year olds pushing for the Stanley Cup, John Davidson and company have a bunch of 23 year olds.  In the world of professional sports, that three-year difference in maturity is much, much greater than it seems.  It’s not reasonable to expect that this group can take the club to the promised land, not yet.

The Blue Jackets therefore need to buy some time, and that’s where Marian Gaborik comes in.  Gaborik’s contract, expiring at the end of next season, allows the youngsters yet another year of maturing before they will be expected to take over the team.  If Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen need another year or two of seasoning for their core, they might be able to sign Gaborik (or a similarly-aged talent) to a contract that will allow for a proper level of professional seasoning for our emerging cohort of stars.  Gaborik can carry the load right now, and the kids can figure out how to play NHL hockey night in and night out.

Did the Gaborik trade provide scoring assistance for a team that needs it this year?  We hope so.  But is there perhaps a different motivation in play, one inspired by a longer view?  I’d like to think so.

All that, coming from a conversation with a friend.  Gotta love sports.  Thanks, Steve!

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