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Marian Gaborik: Goal-scoring game-breaker

He was what Wade Redden(notes) wasn’t. He was a marquee free agent who actually worked out for the New York Rangers and their cigar-chomping, big-spending general manager, Glen Sather.

After signing a five-year, $37.5 million deal last year, winger Marian Gaborik(notes) stayed (mostly) healthy and (very) productive. His 42 goals tied a career high and ranked fifth in the NHL. His 86 points set a career high and ranked 10th in the league.

“When you come to New York as a free agent with a lot of pressure and sign a big contract, of course it’s a lot of expectations,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes). “I think he really handled everything really well last year coming to New York. To perform the way he did, it was, I think, very impressive to see.”

Now Gaborik has to do it again.

Redden has been the Rangers’ major story recently, waived despite four years and $23 million remaining on his contract, apparently headed to Hartford in the American Hockey League. The demoted defenseman is Exhibit A among Sather’s failings in free agency. But it is Gaborik who will write the story of New York's 2010-11 season.

“It’s the No. 1 thing for me, personally, to stay healthy,” Gaborik said. “Everything goes from there.”

Gaborik, a man of few words, was talking only about himself, but he could have been talking about the team. If Gaborik stays on the ice and keeps producing, the Rangers have a chance to make the playoffs. If he doesn’t, they don’t. As well as he played last season, they missed out by one point, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in a shootout in the regular-season finale. Imagine where they will be if his injury problems resurface and his numbers nosedive.

Make no mistake: Lundqvist is the lynchpin, a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, the main reason the Rangers allowed fewer goals (218) last season than eight playoff teams. But unlike with Gaborik, there are no questions about his consistency and durability. History says you can count on Lundqvist year in and year out. He is the first goaltender to win at least 30 games in each of his first five seasons, and he has played at least 70 games in each of the past four, including a career-high 73 contests last year.

The Rangers need Lundqvist to play less, not more. Sather made one of his smarter moves this off-season when he signed veteran backup Martin Biron(notes). Rangers coach John Tortorella said Biron would play here and there to “take some of the load off,” though he hasn’t stated a start target for Lundqvist.

“In the regular season, I think around 70 games is a good number,” Lundqvist said. “But if you want to play until June, I think 70 games might be a little too much.”

With Gaborik, though, less is not more. A healthy Gaborik is one of the game's most dynamic, entertaining players. He scored at least 30 goals five times with the Minnesota Wild, despite the suffocating defensive system of coach Jacques Lemaire. He’s still only 28, and he’s blazing fast with his skates and stick – a perfect fit for Tortorella’s up-tempo attack.

“He scores a lot of his goals in traffic areas, but he shoots the puck quick,” said teammate Sean Avery(notes). “I think that’s one of the things that as a player you see, how quick he gets the puck off and also how accurate his shot is.”

So when Gaborik is injured, it hurts. He has missed at least 17 games four times in his nine-year NHL career. He missed 34 games in 2006-07 because of hip problems. He missed 65 in ’08-09 and had hip surgery. Even though he played 76 games last season, a February knee injury led to changes in his stride, which led to groin problems, which led to struggles down the stretch. He was invisible in the finale against the Flyers, by all accounts, and Tortorella told reporters afterward he was unhappy with how Gaborik played in big games.

The Rangers manage Gaborik carefully, but not in the way you might expect. Again, less is not more.

“When there’s a little bit of soreness, maybe being a little tired, it’s not about taking a day off,” Tortorella said. “It’s about getting on the ice to get that soreness out. I thought that was very effective for him last year, and I think he believes that now, too. We monitor that every day as far as taking care of him. I thought he did a really good job getting his work in, where I think maybe prior years, maybe it’s a day off. We’re going to keep him on the ice and keep it moving.”

After Gaborik, the Rangers’ firepower falls off dramatically. Only two players accounted for a higher percentage of their team’s goals than Gaborik (19.2) did last season: the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos(notes) (23.9) and the Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney Crosby(notes) (20.5), who each scored 51 goals and tied for the league lead. No Ranger but Gaborik scored more than 20 goals last season.

The Rangers have added winger Alexander Frolov(notes), who has scored in the 20-goal range three times and the 30-goal range twice in seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. But it remains to be seen how Frolov will fit. Will he stay on the opposite wing on Gaborik’s line, where he has played in the preseason? Who will center them? Erik Christensen(notes)? Vinny Prospal(notes)? Derek Stepan(notes)?

“I don’t know if they will work together, and I don’t know who is going to be between them,” said Tortorella, a notorious line-juggler who rarely rolls four units. “We’re going through that process of figuring who we are in the middle of the ice, who we are on the back end.”

It all comes back to Gaborik. The Rangers want to build around what they consider their strong young core: Lundqvist; defensemen Marc Staal(notes), Dan Girardi(notes) and Michael Del Zotto(notes); and, forwards Brandon Dubinsky(notes), Ryan Callahan(notes) and Artem Anisimov(notes). They want to be more consistent and develop an identity.

“We want to be a hard-working team and play with speed and be aggressive,” Lundqvist said. “It’s not something that you can say, ‘This is what we are.’ You have to go out and prove it every night. That’s how you build your identity.”

Told he sounded as if he were describing Gaborik, Lundqvist smiled.

“He’s a pretty quiet guy, but very focused when he comes to the rink,” Lundqvist said. “He’s very professional. I just hope he can have a similar year to last year.”