Despite Gaborik's talent, the 'what-ifs' still follow

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It can be both: (a) the catchall and misleading explanation for anything that doesn't require a cast; and, (b) the genuine and troublesome injury that comes, goes and reappears.

For the Minnesota Wild's Marian Gaborik, his groin muscle problems have been very real, and also very much a figurative pain in the posterior.

Just when you think the 25-year-old Slovak is about to break through to that next level -- indisputable superstardom, with numbers that are all the more impressive because they come in Jacques Lemaire's, ahem, "disciplined" system -- Gaborik winces.

He winces not because he is embarrassed by praise and expectations, but because the muscles are rebelling again, raising the question of whether this will be a recurring problem that goes beyond the occasional, yet normal, hockey player's plague.

That was the case last season, when he missed 34 games, far more than the Wild originally expected, and in the recent stretch, when he missed five of seven Wild games before again returning to the lineup at Edmonton last Thursday.

Taking it back to 2005-06, he missed 17 games because of hip flexor and groin problems. Considered separately, there is nothing strange or alarming about the absences. But if it all becomes part of a pattern, it complicates matters. And it perhaps raises eyebrows from those prone to question his commitment and resilience.

At this point, he's day-to-day … even when he's playing. It's a delicate matter, since intermittent absences can indicate premature returns as much as a lack of toughness, and only the guy looking in the mirror knows the whole story.

"I don't think I'm 100 percent yet," Gaborik said Sunday, standing outside the Wild dressing room in the Xcel Energy Center. "But if I waited until I was 100 percent, it would take awhile. It's just a situation where you manage it and be smart about it."

Unfortunately for the Wild, Gaborik's absence came at the same time veteran winger Pavol Demitra, his fellow Slovak, was out with the same injury. Minnesota was 1-4 with Gaborik out and -- temporarily, as it turned out -- relinquished first place in the Northwest Division.

"You have to go through it and try and be positive," said Gaborik, who has five goals in his 15 games this season. "It's different this time than it was last year, a little bit different spot, and that's a good thing. You have to fight through it and do stretching and all kinds of stuff. But I've been injuring it the last two years, and that's been frustrating.

"There's always pressure you feel because you want to play, you want to help the team to win. Especially when the team is not winning or something, there's the pressure. But you have to be smart about it, so that when you do come back, you're not in and out of the lineup."

Gaborik has grown and matured with the franchise since joining the Wild as an 18-year-old in their inaugural season. He came in as the third overall pick in the 2000 draft, the kid from the former Roman military outpost town, Trencin, in Slovakia. He followed Zigmund Palffy and Zdeno Chara from Trencin to the NHL, and he was grateful for the opportunity.

"I had a chance to play for a team [Dukla Trencin] that I liked and for coaches who helped me a lot," he said. "It was a great experience and a great town, and I still like to go back."

Seven years later, despite his four seasons of 30-plus goals, Gaborik still can cause headshaking.

Headshaking, as in: What could he do, if … ?

If he stays healthy.

If he plays with fire and passion every night, getting the most out of his talent.

If he is turned loose.

And, in the short term, if he steps up in the in the wake of the injuries that have the Wild now playing without Demitra and Mikko Koivu, the latter because of the cracked fibula he suffered when taking a wicked slash from the Canucks' Mattias Ohlund on Friday night in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Health is the No. 1 thing," Gaborik said, shrugging. "When I'm healthy, things can get to another level. The team is playing good and that helps. Of course, to win games is the most important thing."

And speaking of "if" …

If Gaborik resents playing in the close-to-the-vest Lemaire system, he seems to do a good job of hiding it.

"Overall, I think we've been improving as a team since we started in 2000, and no doubt, it's because of his system," Gaborik said. "Sometimes, you want to play a looser game, but that way we might not win consistently. We have a better chance to do that this way than in the run and gun."

Yes, I admit I've seen him on nights when he's the best forward on the ice, when he's made eye-popping plays and ended up with a hat trick. And I've walked out of the arena wondering out loud about whether this is a 50-goal scorer waiting to happen -- if he ever is unleashed, whether by Lemaire or anyone else.

I'm not alone in wondering that. Right?

"I don't know," Gaborik said. "Maybe they're saying that, but I'm here, I'm under his system. I want to be a winner and that's the important thing."

Down the road, though, cap issues might complicate matters. The Wild have made long-term commitments to Brent Burns and Koivu, and will have to decide whether to try to re-sign both Demitra and Brian Rolston next summer, or sooner.

Gaborik is due to make $7.5 million next season in the final year of his deal, then potentially be an unrestricted free agent at 28 in 2009 under the lowered-age thresholds in the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement. By then, if he seems to have become physically suspect, even if it's only because he's subject to repeated groin muscle problems, those could be issues as well. Or if he has broken through to that next level, the open market could be a bonanza.

"It's still two years away," said Gaborik, who went through a messy holdout for three weeks at the outset of the 2003-04 season before changing agents and coming to terms with the Wild.

"You never know what's going to happen. Now when the time comes and I'm a free agent, I'll deal with it then. Now, I'm in Minnesota. This has become my second home, and people are nice here."

In Minnesota, the state of hockey, Gaborik remains a bit of an enigma.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."