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Kaberle Re-Energized In Early Going

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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I conduct periodic online conversation with Leaf fans and it would be fun to put together a chart on the waves of condemnation and then adulation that have crashed over defenceman Tomas Kaberle.

The player GM Brian Burke tried to send to Boston for Phil Kessel, the one remaining player from the famous Muskoka Five who refused a trade a  year and half ago, the lost boy on the Leafs defence had absolutely no standing among fans when the season started.

Now there are calls, many calls, to name him captain, an honour thought exclusively destined for Luke Schenn.

So what happened?

There are two ways of dealing with a very public attempt from your general manager to trade you. You can justify his idea or you can prove him wrong.

No one thought Kaberle would take up the latter position with such enthusiasm.

He has meshed spectacularly with Mike Komisarek who in turn has dialed down his sometimes madcap scampering around his own end.

It’s impossible to discern, of course which came first, Kaberle’s spectacular improvement or Komisarek’s rediscovery that less means more.

Another theory buys into Brian Burke’s rationale that your size shrinks the opposition’s aggressiveness. Komisarek is six-foot-four, nearly 250 pounds and ill-tempered on the ice. It is not difficult to believe that Tomas Kaberle is enjoying unparalleled room skating in Komisarek’s formidable shadow. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that Cam Janssen would have hit Kaberle late and across the head in March 2007 had Komisarek been 20 feet away.

In Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa, Kaberle was superb. He was a constant threat to find a streaking forward from deep in his zone. He managed the power play efficiently and did so many good things, from knocking down passes and keeping the puck in the offensive zones on Toronto power plays to ably angling off opposing forwards.

With 17 points in his pocket, Kaberle leads the Leafs in scoring. He also has a three-point edge on San Jose’s Dan Boyle for the league lead among defencemen.

None of this should be that big  a surprise. Kaberle has been invited to five all-star games. At 31, he is enjoying the window where the ravages of playing haven’t yet overcome the edge that comes with 10 years of NHL experience.

But as the Leafs floundered over the last five years, Kaberle’s statistics crumbled. A 67-point player four seasons ago, Kaberle turned in a 53-point season two years ago and a 31-point output last season.

He had become in Toronto, an afterthought, a defenceman unsuited to a banging game who once could be counted on for a lot of points. Because his offensive skills are so subtle - his unwillingness to shoot on the power play is legendary but he is an unerring medium and long-range passer – he was easily forgotten by Leaf fans. When Kaberle put a forward in the clear, as he does better than any other Leaf rearguard, the focus, naturally, would be on the player on the breakaway.

But Kaberle isn’t forgotten anymore. In fact, his rebound lends itself to a slew of new sidebars.
For example, with a manageable contract will Burke deal Kaberle should the Leafs fall out of contention?

Second, if he does, where does he get another puckhandling defenceman because the present core of defencemen is a little long on knuckle and a little short on touch?

The third scenario is the most delicious. If Kaberle has truly rediscovered his game, fans will be thankful he wasn’t shipped to Boston for Kessel who landed here for two first-rounders and a second. In other words, Tomas Kaberle, the player first thought traded for Kessel, could make a case for the outrageous risk assumed by the man who tried to deal him.

Now that, friends, is a storyline.

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