The first time Pavel Kubina talked to Lightning GM Steve Yzerman on the phone this summer, the free agent knew what uniform sweater he wanted to pull over his shoulders.
A few months later, as he drove to the practice rink for his first informal workout, Kubina said he knew he was in the right place.
“It felt so good to be back,” Kubina said.
In many ways, Kubina’s heart never left Tampa. The big defenseman, who grew up as a young player in a Lightning jersey through the tough times and ended up lifting the Stanley Cup over his head, now hopes to finish his career here.
Kubina, who spent the last four seasons in Toronto and Atlanta, gives the Lightning a presence on both ends of the ice and light-hearted leader in the locker room.
“If you look at the pictures of the year that Tampa Bay won the Cup, in about three-quarters of them where you see enthusiasm and fun, he’s in it,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “He’s certainly going to be part of the atmosphere that we’re looking for. I think we needed something like that.”
Kubina keeps people loose. He only has to throw someone a look to make them smile.
“He’s a pretty funny guy,” Lecavalier said, smiling. “He’s a great player and a leader. When you win the Stanley Cup together with somebody, your memories are linked together for the rest of your life.”
Before this season, only two players remained from the 2004 Cup team. Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis have now been joined by Kubina and Eric Perrin, who is currently on a tryout.
Kubina was a major factor in the Cup run, battling against the top lines and giving up his body to block shot after shot. He just kept getting up and hitting harder. St. Louis said the Lightning are getting that player back, and more.
“You’d think he had never left,” St. Louis said. “He’s a great human being and I think his game has matured with experience. He’s got great hands for a big guy, moves the puck, shoots it well and is a great teammate.”
Kubina, 33, kept his house in the area after signing a $20 million, four-year contract with Toronto as a free agent. He played three seasons with the Maple Leafs, scoring 32 goals and 101 points before being traded to Atlanta. Kubina had six goals, including the 100th of his career, and 38 points with the Thrashers last season.
From afar, Kubina said it was tough to see the Lightning struggle the last few years. Now he can do something about.
“I just want to continue what I’ve been doing,” Kubina said. “Whenever you get older, you have to take care of your body and do the smart things in the summer. In my situation, I have to help the younger guys, on and off the ice. I have a little more experience that will help my game.”
Boucher said Kubina has a lot to offer. Kubina is the lone right-hand shot among the top eight defensemen and he will play the point on the power play. He will also play against the top lines and use his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame to move people out in front of the net, a problem the Lightning have had the last three seasons.
Setting up the likes of Lecavalier, St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Simon Gagne on the top power-play unit will be a nice reward for the dirty work he must do.
“Even last year, when I played against this team, they had such a dangerous power play,” Kubina said. “I think every power play, we’re going to get plenty of chances. It’s going to be fun.”
A few howitzers from the point would be nice, but Kubina knows what the Lightning need the most from him.
“We have such great forwards and we’ve just got to get them the puck,” Kubina said. “My first job is play good defensively and do the job in our zone. We know this team can score goals. We just have to make sure we don’t give too many up.”
It has been a long, strange journey for Kubina.
He battled through the growth process in Tampa Bay from 1997-2002 on struggling teams and played a big part in the resurgence in 2002-03 on the way to the Southeast Division title, driving Jaromir Jagr crazy in the first round of the playoffs.
It all came together in 2003-04. Kubina scored a career-high 17 goals and finished the regular season with an impressive plus/minus rating of plus-9, playing big minutes against top players each night.
Kubina spent the lockout year in his native Czech Republic and played one more season in Tampa Bay, going to the playoffs. Kubina has not played in the postseason since. He intends to stop that run.
“It’s a long summer when you don’t make the playoffs,” Kubina said. “It’s tough to watch the other teams still playing, fighting for the Cup. I’m back to do damage with this team again.”