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Canadiens bring in Kaberle to boost power play

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin both were adamant Friday that the one thing keeping their team from excelling this season is a power play ranked near the bottom of the NHL.

Both feel Friday's acquisition of defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Carolina Hurricanes will help remedy that problem.

With power-play quarterback Andrei Markov still recovering from knee surgery and not expected back before late January, Gauthier decided he couldn't wait any longer and pulled the trigger on a trade that sent impending free-agent defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina in a 1-for-1 swap of Czech blueliners.

"When the power play isn't working, it affects the team's morale, so it even starts to affect your play at 5-on-5," Gauthier said before boarding the team flight to New Jersey, where the Canadiens face the Devils on Saturday afternoon. "Everything needs to work. Our goalies are good, we're strong on the penalty kill and we play well at 5-on-5. So there are a lot of things that are going well. We had one weakness, and we know in part that's because Mr. Markov is not playing, but we had to address it."


Kaberle dealt to Canadiens for Spacek
The Carolina Hurricanes have traded former All-Star defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for longtime veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek. READ MORE ›
The Canadiens penalty kill entered Friday night's games ranked second in the League, their goals for and against ratio at 5-on-5 was ranked seventh and Carey Price has been a rock in goal. But the power play has been a disaster -- a big change from the first two seasons of Martin's regime in Montreal where scoring on the power play often made up for the team's poor play at even strength.

The Canadiens are mired in a 1-2-4 slump, with three of those extra-time losses coming in shootouts against San Jose, Columbus -- and on Thursday night against Vancouver after blowing a 3-0 lead. In those four overtime and shootout losses the Canadiens power play went a combined 0-for-12, and Martin can't help but think of how many of those losses could have been wins if the power play were as productive as he's accustomed to.

"I've said it time and time again, but the one area that's been critical has been our power play," Martin said. "You look at 5-on-5, our goals for and goals against we're (seventh) in the League. Someone asked me last night how come we're losing all these games in shootouts, well if we can get some production out of our power play maybe that will make the difference. That's what made the difference in my first two years here."

This would not be the first time Kaberle was looked upon to revive a slumbering power play. Last season the Boston Bruins traded highly-touted prospect Joe Colborne, a first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and what eventually became a 2012 second-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Kaberle, hoping he would be the missing piece to their own power-play struggles.

It didn't work out that way in Boston as the Bruins power play continued to fizzle with Kaberle on the point both in the regular season (10.6 percent in 24 games) and in the playoffs (11.4 percent in 25 games).

However, Gauthier and Martin both pointed to how well Kaberle played in helping the Bruins win the Stanley Cup, even though the defenseman's minutes were severely cut by Bruins coach Claude Julien as the playoffs moved along last spring. In fact, Kaberle did not top 20 minutes in ice time once after Game 5 of the first round against the Canadiens -- a series that the Bruins won without scoring a single power-play goal.

"He played very well for Boston; they won the Stanley Cup," Gauthier said. "And if you look at his statistics, it's actually encouraging that when he joined a good club he performed in his role. He was able to adapt relatively quickly."

Kaberle struggled to start this season after signing a three-year, $12.75 million contract in Carolina and was blasted by general manager Jim Rutherford for arriving at camp unprepared, but Gauthier says his scouts have noted an improvement in his play recently, something Rutherford conceded as well.

Tomas Kaberle
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 9
SOG: 38 | +/-: -12
While his play in the playoffs was widely viewed as a disappointment, Kaberle did have 47 points with the Maple Leafs and Bruins last season, 13th in the League among defensemen. That is the player Gauthier and Martin are hoping will be suiting up for his first game with the Canadiens in New Jersey.

"He had a good season last year, both with Toronto and with Boston," Gauthier said. "His season in Toronto was very respectable, and in Boston he joined a strong club and contributed in his way. He had a slow start this season, but everyone in Carolina had a slow start. Mr. Kaberle has also played better of late, he has four points in his last two games, so his season appears to have been kick started."

Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill and center Tomas Plekanec both are familiar with Kaberle for different reasons. Gill was his teammate in Toronto from 2006 to 2008, while Plekanec is also a native of Kladno in the Czech Republic and works out with Kaberle in the offseason.

"He's a good power-play guy," said Plekanec, who has also played with Kaberle on the Czech national team. "Our power play is hurting us a lot, and that's what we need to get better at. We need the power play to win some games for us, and that hasn't happened so far this year."

Gill said Kaberle will bring a steadiness to the Canadiens' back end in the way he can move the puck.

"He sees the game well. A lot of times he's reading the play before it's happening," Gill said. "He's quiet, goes about his business and works hard. The way he plays on the ice is similar; he's calm, he's cool and just goes about his business."

That is a far cry from Spacek's personality -- he's a renowned prankster whose good humor in the dressing room will be sorely missed by his teammates, and surely appreciated by his new ones in Carolina who could probably use someone to lighten the mood for a team sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference.

"He's a beauty," Gill said. "When he comes into the room, the room picks up."

The acquisition of Kaberle is not only a short-term issue for the Canadiens, because with two more years at $4.25 million per season remaining on his contract he represents a long-term risk as well. Gauthier will have a busy summer coming up, with cornerstone players like Price and P.K. Subban up for restricted free agency, while defenseman Josh Gorges and forward Andrei Kostitsyn will be unrestricted free agents.

With big, long-term contracts to Markov, Scott Gomez, Michael Cammalleri and Brian Gionta still on the books for multiple seasons, adding Kaberle to the mix means Montreal already has more than $43.5 million in salary cap space committed for the 2012-13 season. That could make signing his free agents more difficult, but Gauthier doesn't foresee any problems.

"When you're talking about concerns, you're talking to the wrong person," he said. "We're looking forward, and there's always a way to organize things. When you have good assets, good offensive players and a good goalie, there's always a way to arrange things. So there's no danger, what there may be is opportunity."

This is also a big opportunity for Kaberle to resurrect a career that is not so far removed from him being one of the elite offensive defensemen in the NHL. The Canadiens' season may very well depend on him finding that form again in a hurry.

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