BROSSARD, Quebec -- As Saturday's opening-night game against the Toronto Maple Leafs quickly approaches, the possibility of seeing defenseman P.K. Subban in uniform for the Montreal Canadiens appears to be diminishing by the day.
Subban, a restricted free agent, remained unsigned as Canadiens training camp completed its fourth day Wednesday, and the players have remained consistent in their message that they are preparing to move forward without the player who led the team in ice time last season.
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"We'll go to work tomorrow with the guys that are here, we'll prepare for game one with the guys that are here, and whatever happens after that, we'll move forward from that. But our focus can't be on what ifs, that doesn't do anything beneficial for us," defenseman Josh Gorges said earlier in camp, echoing what several other players have said all week. "We also have Andrei Markov back healthy, who over the course of his career has played those minutes. So we are losing a guy who played 26 minutes or whatever [Subban's] minutes were, but having a healthy Andrei Markov who plays 26 minutes, he's there."
Judging by the defense pairings coach Michel Therrien has used from the start of camp, it would appear one of the biggest beneficiaries of Subban's absence will be veteran Tomas Kaberle.
A bit of a forgotten man after a very difficult 2011-12 season, Kaberle has been skating with Gorges on what could be considered the Canadiens' second defense pair, and Wednesday was playing alongside Markov on Montreal's first power-play unit. It could easily be argued that Subban would be filling both of those spots if he were in training camp.
"I played that role before, so hopefully I can step it up and do it again," Kaberle said. "I'll do my best. That's why I'm here; I want to be a big part of this team."
Kaberle spent the first 13 years of his career as a top-pairing defenseman and power-play quarterback for the Maple Leafs, but since being traded at the 2011 deadline to the Boston Bruins, things began going downhill for the Czech native.
Though he won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins, Kaberle's ice time dropped the deeper Boston went into the playoffs, and he was allowed to hit the free-agent market when his contract expired July 1, 2011. He was signed by the Carolina Hurricanes to a three-year, $12.75 million contract, but he arrived at training camp out of shape and quickly fell out of favor with his new team, publicly called out by general manager Jim Rutherford. By December he'd been traded to the Canadiens, his fourth team in a span of nine months.
When Kaberle was traded by Toronto to Boston he had 38 points in 58 games, so he's not that far removed from being a strong point-producer from the back end, and he's eager to show he can regain that form.
"It was a very short summer for me and I didn't get ready the way I wanted to, but this time around was way better," Kaberle said of his struggles last season. "Obviously you don't want to have a longer [summer] but it happened to be, so I had more training and more time to get ready, especially mentally. When it's a bad season, you regroup, you want to start fresh and you want to be positive. There was a lot of negative last year overall, and you don't want to start like that. You want to be positive."
Should Subban miss the start of the season, the Canadiens will need a lot of positives out of Kaberle.
He spent part of the lockout playing for his hometown of Kladno in the Czech Republic with Canadiens teammate Tomas Plekanec, who practiced for the first time Wednesday after sitting out the first three days of camp with a rib injury. Plekanec said he was impressed with what he saw from Kaberle in the 10 games he played there (collecting six points) before leaving the team to spend more time with his family.
"He played the way that we know he can play, moving the puck, playing on the power play, making the right decisions, great first pass," Plekanec said. "That's the kind of defenseman he is. He's in shape, he looks sharp. It looks like Kabby's back."
"We'll go to work tomorrow with the guys that are here, we'll prepare for game one with the guys that are here, and whatever happens after that, we'll move forward from that. But our focus can't be on what ifs, that doesn't do anything beneficial for us."
-- Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges
A further ripple effect of Subban's absence at camp appears to be Swiss defenseman Raphael Diaz getting a look on the third pair with veteran free-agent acquisition Francis Bouillon, a spot that may have otherwise been filled by Kaberle.
Diaz is another puck-mover who skated on the second power-play unit Wednesday and had a tremendous run in the Swiss league with his hometown team Zug during the lockout, piling up 29 points in 32 games.
Diaz, a veteran of eight seasons with Zug, surprised everyone last year when he made the Canadiens out of training camp and performed well when his responsibilities were increased due to injuries before he went down to injury at the end of February.
Diaz said he prefers not to think about what is going on with Subban and how it affects his own usage, but he is determined to use his experience from last year to carve out more of a niche on the Canadiens this season.
"We are different players," Diaz said of Subban. "But I want to make my game better from last year to this year, and from game to game too. I want to move the puck quickly to the forwards, make a good first pass, and maybe try to join the rush a little bit more than last year and try to give a little more support offensively. I just want to play my game."
With one of their top defenseman missing for an indefinite period of time, the Canadiens will need Diaz and Kaberle to make the most of the opportunity being given to them.
And both appear determined to do just that.