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Wild’s Gaborik negotiations echo Twins’ situation with Nathan and Santana

Marian Gaborik
Marian Gaborik

They’re still talking, anyway. So far at least, Ron Salcer, Marian Gaborik’s agent, hasn’t told Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough or Risebrough’s associates to take a hike as he tries to negotiate a long-term deal for his client.

But here’s the thing that will swing this one way or the other: Is Gaborik thinking more like Joe Nathan or more like Johan Santana?

Risebrough better hope it’s like Nathan, or he may find himself in front of a bank of microphones explaining why he traded Gaborik to the New York Rangers, or some other Eastern Conference team.

Last spring, Nathan, like Gaborik, reported to camp in the final year of his contract after the Twins picked up his option. Nathan calls himself an optimist by nature, and he arrived in Fort Myers with a more open mind than most people.

Instead of sulking about the Twins trading Santana and letting Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva walk in free agency, Nathan noted the long-term contract commitments to Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, and the three years left on Joe Mauer’s deal. Closely watching the young pitchers around him, Nathan counted 10 potential starters — not all major-league ready, but close enough — and almost as many relievers. And he liked what he saw from kids like Carlos Gomez.

That left Nathan upbeat about the team’s future. He decided to stay if the price were right, and his agent, Dave Pepe, negotiated a four-year, $47 million deal.

Santana, on the other hand, bolted in part because he wanted Barry Zito-type money that the Twins had no intention of giving him. Plus, the club’s refusal to pay veteran free agents — even their own — and its lack of aggressiveness at the trade deadline convinced Santana he could never win a world championship here. Can’t argue with his thinking, and time will prove whether he’s right.

Now Nathan, by giving up potential free agency, cost himself an even bigger payday. If he were available, New York Mets officials would already be loading bags of money on a flatbed bound for Nathan’s off-season home in Tennessee. But Nathan wasn’t, and instead the Twins still have a shot at the American League Central Division title nobody thought possible in March. That makes Nathan the smartest guy in the room.

And that’s why this Gaborik negotiation is so important.

It’s one thing if the Wild can’t entice someone else’s free agents to come here. If I were an elite player intent on winning a Stanley Cup, I wouldn’t sign with Minnesota either. I’d go for a team with a track record of excellence, like Detroit or Anaheim or Colorado. But if one of your own, a player who grew along with the franchise, eyeballs the organization and says, “I’m out of here,” that can be perceived as an indictment of the front office, the coaching and the development plan. Players notice that.

Fortunately for Risebrough, Gaborik hasn’t reached the get-me-outta-here point. At last Friday’s training camp kickoff luncheon, Risebrough said he’d prefer to have a deal done with him by the season opener but refused to set a firm deadline.  

But Risebrough better hope the new players he’s acquired give the Wild more life and grit than last year. You can bet Gaborik, while recovering from a leg injury, is sizing up his new teammates like Nathan sized up his own.

Gaborik is the only player in camp who scored as many as 20 goals in the NHL last year. That means more mucking and grinding, which Risebrough, in his pre-camp luncheon address last Friday, conceded by talking at length about defensemen launching more shots from the point.  More shots, more rebounds, more loose pucks, more chances for friendly bounces. That’s the idea, anyway. And somebody, whether it’s Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, or some other forward, needs to get Gaborik the puck.

So the next couple of weeks are big. If Gaborik is as excited about the Wild’s future as Nathan was about the Twins’, Risebrough’s task might be a heck of a lot easier. We’ll see how this plays out.

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