It was a literal and painful break for Bryan McCabe.
It was another kind of break for Pavel Kubina and while McCabe is healed and gone to the Florida Panthers, it is Kubina who has returned stronger than ever.
Criticized after an injury-filled rookie season with the Leafs, Kubina righted himself last year when McCabe, the club’s go-to defenceman broke three bones in his hand, December 15 in Montreal.
Kubina and Tomas Kaberle became the club’s dominant pairing and Kubina’s confidence soared right around with his minutes.
“I became the go-to guy and that’s the type of guy I am. I have to be one of the top D. I would rather play more than less and I think I am a better player when I play more.”
Kubina finished a plus-five and was an even or plus player in 50 of his 72 games. That’s not bad for a club that gave up 260 goals, fourth worst in the league.
Kubina finished with 11 goals and 40 points and his rugged, defence-first play so impressed Ron Wilson that Wilson lobbied for the acquisition of Kubina for his San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. Kubina’s play was so solid Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher saved him from the summer makeover despite the fact that Kubina’s no-trade contract was not in effect in the summer.
The 31-year-old, six-foot-four Kubina is built to Wilson’s defence first specifications; Wilson loves shot blocking. Kubina is right there with him.
“To block shots, you have to be in the shooting lane. You have to be smart. Is it a left-hand or a right-hand shooter? You have to be desperate around your own net and smart enough to let the goalie see the shot in case it gets by you. It’s about pride and doing everything for the team.”
Last year represented a remarkable turnaround for Kubina who missed time in his first season with the Leafs with a suspension, a knee injury, a groin injury and a broken finger. It was enough to make you think, and Kubina does not necessarily disagree, that in an effort to prove his worth after signing a free agent deal with the Leafs, he threw his mojo out of whack.
“I never had a year like that. I played nine years in Tampa and I didn’t have as many injuries there as I had that first year in Toronto.”
Kubina has heard the dire predictions for this year’s Leafs team. He has heard Fletcher and Wilson ask for patience. He is unmoved.
“I see a lot of young guys, a lot of talent. It’s a fast team. We have been working hard on the system. I think we will be tough to play against. I’m here to make the playoffs. That’s my goal. I will try to do my best.”
A year removed from his worst year as a pro, Kubina’s name keeps popping up in speculation as to who will wear the captain’s C while Mats Sundin ponders his future.
“I think it’s up to management,” he said. “It would be an honour for me. I would see it as appreciation from the coach for what you do in the ice. But we have good leaders on this team, Steener, (Alex Steen), Kabby, (Tomas Kaberle), Matt Stajan. It’s not only about the one guy. It’s the group of guys who have to lead the team.
“It’s nice to hear about it, but I’m not focusing on that. I’m focusing on our first regular season game against Detroit.”