Thursday, March 11, 2010

Something's Wrong

I'm kind of a Tomas Kaberle supporter, as anyone who reads this blog might have guessed. He became my favourite Leaf during the Quinn era, mostly because of his unselfish and under-appreciated play, and remains so today, though the spotlight has definitely shifted. While Sundin, Tucker, Cujo, and McCabe were celebrated like heroes for their superstar qualities as much as their playoff success, Kaberle's quiet but vital contributions were steadily overlooked by the media.

These days, Tomas is one of the most talked about Leafs, but appreciated mostly for his theoretical trade-value to the team, and not for the skill-set that he brings to the ice. He is now the Leafs leading scorer, destined to become the first defenceman in the history of the universe to accomplish that, and the only player on the current roster to play more games in a Leafs uniform then Nikolai Kulemin. Yes, Kulemin. I've triple-checked that to make sure it's correct. Kulemin has played 2 more games then Luke Schenn.

So, while I'm usually the guy defending Kaberle from unfair criticism, and pointing out his contributions when I think they've been overlooked, I have to be honest here; something doesn't feel quite right. Tomas is struggling right now. I'm not sure why. Gonna try to figure it out.

Tomas hasn't exactly been a scoring dynamo from the blue-line, other then a couple of 4 and 5-point games in late October, but he has been steady and consistent. Prior to the Olympic break, Kaberle had not once gone more then 3 consecutive games without registering a point. Since returning from a quarter-final exit with the Czechs, Kaberle has now yet to appear on the scoresheet for 5 consecutive games and is currently in the midst of a six-game slump. He's also a brutal minus 7 in the last 6 games, minus 6 since returning from Vancouver, plummeting his total plus/minus all the way down to -16.

Since December 1st, Kaberle has had just one multiple-point game. He has just 6 points on the powerplay since January, a span of 25 games. With still 16 games left in the season, his lead over Kessel in team scoring - with the distinction of being the first Maple Leafs defenceman to do it hanging in the balance - is down to just 3 points and looks less then assured.

Is it the GM?

How many times can you hear somebody say they're not going to ask you to do something before you realize you're expected to do it? I doubt Kaberle's mini-capitulation on deadline day came as any surprise to Burke, who holds the real hammer in the summer, but it came too late to impress. There's a fine line between being stubborn and being loyal and Kaberle has walked this line very well in the past, but he might be beginning to wobble as Sundin once did.

Is it the Coach?

Kaberle and Wilson don't seem to click so well, but who does Wilson click with? The powerplay, the penalty kill, 4-on-4, our overtime record - all are atrocious. There has to be some disappointment on Kaberle's part that there wasn't more of a push for the playoffs, and more urgency from the coaching staff to fix some serious issues, earlier in the season. Now, most of the players that led the Leafs to the bottom of the Conference are on playoff-bound teams while Kaberle watches his ice-time and relevance diminish before another early summer holiday.

Is it the New Guy?

When Phaneuf joined the team, I was excited for Tomas becuase I had visions of spectacular cross-ice passes being blasted from Dion's rocket-cannon, as the Leafs new and improved powerplay duo unleashed devastating one-timers from the blue line. So far, not so much. Since Phaneuf's arrival 10 games ago, Kaberle has just 3 points on the powerplay, scored consecutively over 3 games, and zero points at even-strength. The team is just 5-for-45 on the PP since Phaneuf came aboard, starting out well, but now mired in an 0-for-29 slump. So far, the chemistry is not there.

Am I the New Guy now?

It really wasn't that long ago that Kaberle shared dressing rooms with Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, and Pavel Kubina. They even had a nickname for their clubhouse. Now even the supporting characters, like Steen, Colaiacovo, Antropov, Stajan, White, and Ponikarovsky, have turned in their keys and found new places to dwell. With all of the unfamiliar faces around - being welcomed and making themselves feel comfortable - not to mention a whole new atmosphere and culture, who's the new guy around here anyhow? Tomas might feel just as lonely and alienated as any newcomer in this dressing room, maybe more.

Is it burnout?

It's been a long and arduous season for the NHL players that participated in the Olympics, trying to cram 14 or so games into every month, plus a mini-tournament. Kaberle turned 32 just last week (March 2nd) and may be wearing down a little. His ice time is reduced now with the arrival of Phaneuf, but I'm thinking that it's down to what it's supposed to be, and that the injury to Komisarek had Kabby eating more ice time, and playing in more strenuous situations then the GM had originally intended for him. In any case, carrying the load for a losing team has gotta be tough and Kabby could be burning out. I don't want to believe it, but it's a maybe.

Where's my motivation?

Team-goals aside, Tomas has accomplished much this year. Tied for 5th among NHL defenceman for points. Tied for 14th in the NHL (with Crosby) for points on the powerplay. Tied for 18th overall (again, with Crosby) for assists. Reached the 800 games played milestone, passing Tied Domi for 10th spot on the Leafs all-time roster. Surpassed the career point totals of Maple Leafs legends Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Tim Horton, Lanny McDonald, and Norm Ullman. Reached the 400 assist milestone with his last assist (now 7 games ago). What's left?

For most of the season, Kaberle was on pace for his 2nd-best offensive totals of his career, though his recent slump has put that target curiously in doubt. Without 12 points in his remaining 16 games, it'll be just his 3rd best season, and he still needs 7 points to do that. His plus/minus is by far the worst it's ever been.

Meanwhile, a huge motivating factor looms before him. Since October, Kaberle has led the team in scoring and could become the first defenceman in the history of the franchise to do so. However, as mentioned, the gap is closing fast. Kessel is just 3 points behind Tomas with still 16 games left to play. But there could be even more at stake...

A hypothetical scenario came into my mind where I envisioned Burke quietly telling Kaberle's agent that "the team's leading scorer" (whomever that may be) would never be traded under his watch. I could see this being true, as it doesn't send a great message to the rest of the team if the leading scorer gets dealt, and it fits with my perception of Burke's firm principles about loyalty and rewarding success. On the other hand, should Kaberle lose the team scoring crown to Kessel, it might reflect a player who's good - but not quite a leader. A great guy, but not a winner. A player whose talent is being surpassed, whose best days are behind him. If there's a way for Tomas to prove he belongs, I think this would be the way to do it. Finish the season as the team's leading scorer and make history... or don't, and people will see what they want to see.

"I always look at the guys like Steve Yzerman and those guys that played on only one team. Obviously, these days, it's really tough to stay on one team your whole career... you never know what will happen in the summertime. Now I have to show I want to be here and play my best hockey."
-Toronto Star, March 4th.
Except, that's not happening so far. Instead we're seeing the opposite, almost as if the bags are already packed.


This post was written before tonight's 4-3 OT victory over the Lightning. Once again, Tomas Kaberle was held off the scoresheet, his pointless streak now reaching 7 games, 4 games longer then any previous scoreless stretch for him this season. On a positive note, he was a plus 1. Meanwhile, Kessel's assist on Bozak's 3rd period goal plus his overtime winner gives him 2 more points, for 45 points on the season. Kessel now trails Kaberle for the team lead in points by just 1, with 15 games to go.


. said...

I will miss Kabs when he is gone, but no longer see him as an asset moving forward. If Burke can pull the trigger in the off-season and receive a decent return, I will be okay with that. It will be weird like seeing Sundin in a Canucks jersey at first, but I'll get over it - especially if the return is a young and useful piece for the future.

Great entry.

general borschevsky said...

Thanks Harold.

I still want Kabby to be part of this team next season because when Komisarek come back to the line-up, I really like the look of our top-six D.

Burke has said his "inclination is to do nothing" and suggested there was a possibility of signing Kaberle to an extension this summer.

I feel like it's on Kabby's shoulders now, that he really has to prove that he belongs here. With 15 games to go, one way to do that would be to finish the season strong, increase his point totals, maintain his lead over Kessel, and become the first defenceman in franchise history to lead the team in scoring. I'd like that to happen but I don't think it will now.

Perhaps another way for Kaberle to prove he belongs, on the other hand, is instead to put personal goals aside, and to accept a diminshed role with less playing time and less opportunity for statisitical achievements, and to show a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. I already know Kaberle can do that and I doubt you'll ever hear any grumblings from Kabby or his agent about playing time or powerplay decisions.

Right now the defence looks stacked heading into next season, but Komisarek's injury has been a long one, so maybe he's a question mark. Phaneuf, with only 2 points in 11 games as a Leaf seems popular for his style of play despite not really producing. Gunnarsson looks great, but imagine he goes down with another mid-season injury, and we'll be pretty happy that we still have Kaberle - a proven, mature, skilled-defenceman who can handle a ton of ice-time - ready to step in and step it up.

Either way, I'll be really keeping my eye on Kabby's play for the remainder of the season.