As the Leafs prepare to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, newly signed defenceman Tomas Kaberle was practicing with his team for the first time. Kaberle signed his new multi-year deal on Tuesday, but didn't play in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
While many expect Kaberle to be in the Leafs' lineup Saturday, Coach Pat Quinn didn't make it official as of Friday. The 23-year-old defenceman was taking part in all drills and said that he can't gauge where his game currently stands.
"It's tough to say right now," said Kaberle. "This was my first practice and I'll see how I feel tomorrow (Saturday) and I'll talk with the coaches."
Kaberle said that he has kept himself in good shape during his contract impasse with the Leafs. During his time in the Czech Republic, Kaberle practiced twice a day while playing for Kladno and also worked on his conditioning.
The contract talks between the Leafs and Kaberle's agent Jay Fee were frustrating at times. While trading Kaberle was never considered, there was a possibility that he might sit out the year and play in the Czech Republic. There also were reports that Fee spoke with the N.Y. Islanders to see if they had any interest in his client, but those talks never got serious.
"I was thinking about every situation," Kaberle said. "I always believed that I would stay here and it's over now so I can concentrate on the game."
The biggest hurdle facing Kaberle now is getting ready to play regularly with the Leafs after weeks of inactivity. Kaberle hasn't been able to play a game for a month because he would have been ruled ineligible for the year if he played back home on or any time after Oct. 3 (the start of the NHL season).
Now that Kaberle is ready to play his first game, all eyes will be on him to see if he will earn his big pay raise. Captain Mats Sundin is one Leaf who doesn't think that the pressure will get to Kaberle.
"I think he'll be fine," said Sundin. "He's young and he's proven to be strong mentally. He played great for us in the playoffs and he's faced pressure in different way all through his career so I don't think that will be a problem for him. The biggest thing for him right now is to get back playing on NHL-size rinks and get used to the more faster and physical game than want he's been doing for the last few months. That may take him a while just to get used to that."
For Kaberle, that physical test will come in the form of the Avalanche. While the team struggled at the start of the year, Colorado still has some of the most explosive offensive players in the league. Peter Forsberg has taken a sabbatical from hockey, but Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Chris Drury can still light up the scoreboard and can put a lot of pressure on the defence.
"I want to play every game and hopefully my body and legs will feel the same way," said Kaberle.