by Scott Burnside
One of our favourite things to do up in the rafters at Air Canada Centre is to try and figure out why Tomas Kaberle refuses to shoot the puck.
Ancient Czech curse? Fearful of hurting teammates, opponents and fans? Thinks he has to pay for the sticks and doesn't want to break them?
Even as a child, Kaberle seemed uninterested in adding the shot to his hockey arsenal, said father Frantisek Kaberle, a player and coach of long international experience and now a scout with Bobby Orr's agency.
"I say many times to him, you must shooting, shooting," said the father of two NHL defencemen (Tomas's brother Frantisek and his Atlanta Thrashers will be in town Thursday) who also patrolled the blue line for the Czech national team from 1974 to 1981, twice winning a World Championship.
| Tomas Kaberle has started to put more pucks on the net. |
Graig Abel Photography
Coach and GM Pat Quinn also joked about Kaberle's near phobic reluctance to shoot the puck. Yes, team officials felt the young Czech defenceman seemed reluctant to direct the puck at the opposing net, Quinn admitted. So, they made him a tape of the writers in the press box screaming in unison 'shoot! shoot!' he quipped.
Ha. Ha. Good one.
Must have worked because a funny thing happened on the way to rink this season - Kaberle is like a man possessed, unleashing a virtual maelstrom of shots at unsuspecting opposition goaltenders.
A year ago, Kaberle directed only 85 shots on net in 69 games. He has never topped the 100-shot mark in four previous NHL seasons. By comparison, frequent defensive partner Bryan McCabe had 157 shots last season.
But through the first nine games of the current campaign, Kaberle had unleashed a team-high 24 shots, on pace to virtually triple his shot output of a year ago.
"He's a smart player in my mind," said Quinn. "He's worked on it. He's moving into a higher level at least on the offensive side for sure."
Apart from the obvious, shoot and you have a better chance of scoring either directly or by virtue of a rebound, by shooting more Kaberle has become more difficult to defend.
In the past teams would play off Kaberle, especially on the power play, and shade their coverage towards McCabe or any other defensive partner, who, by virtue of being on the ice with Kaberle, was the designated shooter.
In the same way baseball teams have an advantage if they know what pitch is coming, opposing teams had a greater chance of either blocking the shot or intercepting the pass given Kaberle's predilection to pass. By developing a shot, Kaberle also gives himself more room to move the puck in the offensive zone. And it's not just shooting the puck from the blue line that has enhanced Kaberle's game.
Always quick to jump into the play, Kaberle has now developed a tidy one-timer, which he has used to advantage, chipping in three goals and three assists in nine games.
Kaberle said he was never aware of any verbal encouragement coming from either the Air Canada Centre faithful or the press box. But he acknowledged teammates and coaches had encouraged him to use his shot more frequently.
"More people have been telling me to shoot, that a bad shot is better than a bad pass," Kaberle said. "It's something I've been trying to work on."
Still, there is something almost painful about watching the evolution of Kaberle the selfless to Kaberle the boomer.
"I'm the kind of player who prefers to make the pass. I'm a passing guy," he said.
This is not all that surprising given Kaberle's incredible shyness and reluctance to discuss his own talents. For instance, Kaberle said he would much rather set up a teammate on a 2-on-1.
But, Kaberle is nothing if not a team guy and acknowledged that by veering from the predictable, the team's chances for success increase.
"Coaches know what guys can do," said Kaberle. "Sometimes if I shoot, it's going to change what they do. Maybe they leave me more room."
Room for what Tomas?
"Maybe they leave me more room for the pass next time," he said.
Well, no one said it was going to be easy.