With each passing season, the chain of players, forever linked by a championship trophy and the lasting memories it brings, is chipped away by the ongoing juggernaut called professional sports.
Free agent signings, releases, the wavier wire, buyouts – it’s part of NHL hockey in July. In this case, the latest casualty is one Frantisek Kaberle. By my count, that leaves just nine players on the Carolina roster from the franchise’s shining moment on June 19, 2006.
The buyout today of the remainder of Kaberle’s $2.2 million salary, scheduled to kick in for the 2009-10 season, was far from a surprise. The club benched the Czech defenseman for much of the regular season, the playoffs – even placed him on waivers twice with no takers.
With Jim Rutherford signing more defensive size over the last two weeks in Aaron Ward (6-2, 215), Andrew Alberts (6-4, 220) and Jay Harrison (6-3, 220), Kaberle’s value sank even more, not to mention the trades for offensive-minded defensemen Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen the last two seasons.
With a now crowded and younger defensive corps, the Carolina GM was left with few options but to send Kaberle on his way, likely into retirement or back across the pond at age 35.
Kaberle spent nine seasons playing in either the Czech Republic or Sweden – as many seasons as he logged in the NHL. Maybe there is room on some NHL roster for a player who will do whatever it takes to collect a professional check in the waning moments of a career. Just like Major League Baseball’s shortage of good arms, teams are always looking for a sixth or seventh defenseman who doesn’t make many mistakes. Frankie would fit that bill, but sticking in the NHL after being on the block for more than a season would unfortunately be a long shot.
Rutherford recently told me he has never traded a player away from the Canes that he didn’t personally like. So, this call must have been especially difficult for the Carolina GM because Kaberle is a guy who rarely complained about playing time, or lack thereof, after a shoulder injury to start the 2006-07 season in retrospect sent his career on a downward spiral.
We in North Carolina have called him Frankie with affection since signing with the team as a free agent in July 2004 as hockey was about to cease in a lockout, while the rest of the NHL followers often referred to him as the less-talented brother of defenseman Tomas Kaberle.
The Caniacs prefer the former. Rutherford lured Kaberle away from the Atlanta Thrashers in an attempt to provide more punch from the point on the power play. And Kaberle provided in the Cup run of 2006, playing in 77 games, registered a career-high 44 points.
But it was in his first postseason action where Kaberle shined. His four goals and nine assists placed him third amongst NHL defenseman that playoff season behind Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek. However, soon after hoisting the Cup, Kaberle would go under the knife and his career would forever change.
After the shoulder injury, Kaberle would play in just a combined 137 games over the next three seasons, compiling 35 points – a far cry from the production of the Cup season.
Despite playing in the NHL for close to a decade, Frankie spoke broken English and rarely, if ever, did interviews. But he was far from standoffish. Mostly in street clothes after games this season, I would often make a point to stop by his locker to offer words of encouragement. I was always greeted with Frankie’s famous smile and a thank you.
Twenty years from now the trivia question will have been asked hundreds, maybe thousands of times among Caniacs. Who scored the game-winning goal in the Game 7 to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup? After guesses of Eric Staal, Ray Whitney or Rod Brind’Amour are exhausted, some smart hockey fan will blurt out Frankie.
Yes, I would prefer to remember Kaberle's solid NHL career with the correct answer and an image of a puck fluttering past Edmonton goalie Jussi Markkanen.