It’s likely Marian Gaborik‘s tenure with the Columbus Blue Jackets will be viewed by most as an unequivocal bust. Those who feel that way have plenty of stats to back them up. Gaborik only dressed in 34 of the 74 games played and only garnered 22 points while collecting Blue Jacket paychecks. While on the ice, he either looked out of sorts, out of place or utterly invisible. There were certainly flashes of 40-goal scorer greatness, but they were too few and far between.
Very few were surprised when Gaborik was traded at the NHL trade deadline to the Los Anegeles Kings. He came into Columbus with much aplomb, but seemingly limped to LA with little fanfare outside of the City of Angels. People question just how much offense Gaborik has left to give on the ice. Many Columbus fans are left dispirited by what little they saw of him on Nationwide Arena‘s sheet.
What gets lost in all the lackluster play, injuries and passage of time is that Gaborik made an immeasurably positive contribution to Columbus. It just didn’t happen on the ice.
If one rewinds the clock back to just two seasons ago, the state of the franchise was poor, to say the least. Their lone playoff appearance was years removed and seemed like a fluke. The blockbuster Jeff Carter trade brought in a disinterested player whose official position should have been listed as “passenger” instead of center. Steve Mason couldn’t stop a beach ball. Their play had been terrible in the past, but this season would be the first in which they finished dead last in the standings, officially becoming cellar dwellers.
These are hardly the makings of a highly sought-after free-agent destination. Add in Columbus had the most/worst air miles on their yearly travel schedule and the perception of the Jackets’ locker room having a “country club” culture. This scared away any potential free agents, at least the truly skilled, competitive ones. The few free agents the club did land were grossly overpaid, hence James Wisniewski‘s bloated contract.
After you hit rock bottom though, there’s no where else to go but up. New management, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar, Vezina Trophy winning play and head coach Todd Richards forging an team identity, a cohesive unit shockingly thrust the Jackets into playoff contention last season. Columbus was far from being on a marquee free agent’s wish list, but at least they’d achieved respectability.
Then, something borderline miraculous happened. Newly minted GM Jarmo Kekalainen pulled off the blockbuster trade of the 2013 deadline. Kekalainen sent over John Moore, Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and acquired Gaborik. “What? A 40-goal scorer waived his No Trade Clause to come to Columbus?!” Just like that, over night, a super star volunteering to play for the once perennially beleaguered Blue Jackets changed public and NHL perceptions.
Columbus no longer had to solely rely on draft picks to bring in seemingly Rick Nash-esque caliber players. They could get some to voluntarily don the union blues.
The summer after the Jackets came ever so close to making the playoffs, the Jackets landed arguably the biggest free agent signing of the off season — Nathan Horton. We’ll never know how much this factored into Horton’s decision, but it’s worth pondering how much Gaborik’s NTC waiver influenceed Horton’s decision to sign with Columbus. Would the Jackets have Horton at all if it wasn’t for Gaborik?
It was also thrilling for Columbus fans to have Bobrovsky re-sign as a free agent on 2013’s draft day and genuinely appear to want to stay in Columbus. Would that have been the case even a year or two prior?
When the Kings and former Jacket Carter comes to Nationwide Arena and touches the puck, he’s showered with boos for his whining his way out of Columbus. When Gaborik gets his tape on the rubber disk, he’ll be greeted with indifference by most, but cheers by those in the know. Gaborik was the first superstar to give Columbus his seal of approval. It sent a ripple effect across the league that will be benefiting the Blue Jackets for years and years to come.