It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this season Marian Gaborik moved from potential's waiting room to stardom's head table and a spot on the NHL's 'A' list of talent.
Was it his six-point undressing of Phoenix, his demoralizing hat trick against Los Angeles or his uncoiled blind backhander that staggered Vancouver goalie Dan Cloutier and dropped jaws all around the arena.
Historians can debate when the best years of Gaborik's career began, but there is no argument today. The Minnesota Wild has a star on its hands.
With 10 goals and 19 points in 14 games and a reservoir rich in talent and confidence, Gaborik has graduated from nifty prospect to watch to being on every opponent's most-wanted list of dangerous players. He is the hottest player on the hottest team in the league, contributing to the revelry of his team's surprising 9-3-2 start and pushing the boundaries of franchise expectations.
Gaborik is on a pace to double his 30-goal, 67-point sophomore season of 2001-02. He is third in the league in goals, and leads the Wild in scoring, power-play points (10) and shots on goal (49). He has been dominant short-handed, at even strength and with the man advantage.
What's more, he elevates the play of everyone on the ice around him -- the hallmark of any great player from Gordie Howe to Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux to Joe Sakic.
But he is wont to deflect discussion about how good he is or how great he can be. For a 20-year-old Slovakian who has experienced mostly success so far in North America, he knows he has more to accomplish.
"Obviously, it feels pretty good to be among the best players right now. But you can be there one day and not the next," he said Wednesday. "You have to keep working hard to remain there and help the team win. Otherwise, it can be a different story."
NHL history is littered with sagas about high-draft choice duds and flameouts. Rolling the dice on an 18-year-old to carry an organization across thresholds that few can do alone can be a risky wager, especially in this high-stakes era of recent expansion, economic disparity among markets and hit-or-miss attendance.
It has taken Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier four years to grow into a leadership role that was dumped on him as a teenager by a loose-lipped owner who dubbed him the Michael Jordan of hockey.
Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta might be the most talented offensive 19-year-old in the league, but he recently was benched because of a woeful minus-12 rating. He need only consult Lecavalier about suffering through the formative years on a bad team.
Make no mistake, the Wild is giddy about Gaborik's emergence as a superstar. But they also are cautious about bridling too much responsibility on their racehorse. While his No. 10 jerseys are popping up at arenas, don't expect the Wild to start plastering his mug on the sides of buses or sending him out on the local sports banquet circuit.
Others will continue to wear the captain's "C." And there will be no labeling on a team that prides itself on playing within a system that runs on the fuel of two-way contributions from all 23 players every game.
"If you're going to win, there's no such thing as a franchise player in hockey," Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough said. "There are team players. Our best players have to play both ends of the ice, offense and defense.
"With Marian right now, you're probably seeing a confidence level that's higher than it's ever been. He feels he can affect games, and that's the maturity of a good player."
Chief among Gaborik's attributes is his explosive speed. He is a flashy but strong skater who can beat defenders down either wing or work his way to prime scoring real estate. He also possesses a deceivingly heavy shot from the left side that can be unleashed quickly.
"I've played with a lot of great players -- Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny, Brett Hull -- and Gabby's kind of a mixture of Bure and Mogilny," said Cliff Ronning, who has assisted on six of Gaborik's past seven goals. He's still young, so who knows how good he can be?"
"You give him a little space, and he's going to blow by you," said Phoenix Coach Bob Francis, who watched Gaborik torch his team for two goals and four assists Oct. 26.
In his third season, Gaborik has thrived more than any of the 11 first-round players of the class of 2000 who are playing regularly in the NHL. This was the same draft in which Rick DiPietro became the first goalie to be selected first overall, by the New York Islanders. And he's still in the minors.
"The most surprising thing to me is that he wasn't the number one pick," said Coyotes scout Tom Kurvers, a Minnesota native who has watched Gaborik, the No. 3 pick, since he was a rookie. "The only other guy who I knew would be something special the first time I saw him was Mike Modano. They both have the ability to electrify the building."
It has taken more than two years for Gaborik to feel comfortable with his environment, whether at home or in the dressing room. Last summer, he got engaged, although the couple has not set a wedding date.
An avid moviegoer, his English skills have been honed more by Hollywood than textbooks. But he is a stronger presence in the dressing room, speaking for the team and recognizing what it takes to be a successful professional.
In his eyes, though, the sky is still the limit.
"I've learned to be more patient, and the experience has helped. I got stronger physically and feel more comfortable on the ice. I have more confidence, but I know there's still room to improve," he said.
"I want to be a leader, and I want to be on top of my game. But I also want the team to be successful. We're up there right now. But we can't let up. I can't let up. We can't think anything is going to be easy."