Onward with Kaberle


Even before the clock struck midnight, it had become apparent Tomas Kaberle would remain a Leaf headed into 2010-11. Indeed TSN ended the wait at 11.57pm, officially announcing that all trade negotiations had come to an impasse after a morbid day of Tweets, updates and rumours boiled down to the status quo. Almost three years of trade speculation seemed to be distilled into a cathartic melting pot of emotion. For many this was the trade that would define the Leafs future and after all the hyperbole, one leaked offer from San Jose; Joslin and a first round draft pick, seemed to set an ominous tone for a day that ended in nought.

If this were anywhere but the parallel universe known colloquially as Leafs Nation, Brian Burke would have been lauded for his steadfast refusal to be low-balled on the trading block. But with the Sundin debacle still fresh in the memories of Leafs fans, last week’s failure to exercise the ghost of the Muskoka Five after years of speculation has left many fearing a repeat of their former captain’s defection and threatened to divide opinion like the Kessel trade did almost a year previous.

One could have argued the time to move Kaberle came long before deadline 2010 past. A year before to be precise when preferable offers were on the table; but to argue such a point now would be moot. What last Sunday amounted to was a tipping point whereby Kaberle segued from the Leafs most valuable trading chip to a no-man’s-land of negligible worth. In effect it cost the Leafs the ability to upgrade their offensive weaknesses while pinning a substantial cap hit on an already bloated backend for another year.

 With the wolfpack commonly referred to as the mainstream Toronto press baying for blood within moments of TSN’s announcement and Burke’s official statement, it would be fair to say Tomas Kaberle received the kind of MLSE onceover only reserved for players who have plied much of their career in the blue and white.

Such distractions won’t help the malaise that will continue to hang over Kaberle and Burke until some kind of resolution is found in the aftermath of D-Day’s non-event and the subsequent comments made by Frantisek Kaberle Snr. in the Czech hockey magazine “Hokej” have only intensified speculation amongst Leafs fans.

Indeed if anybody thought August 15th’s inactivity would help perpetuate the grey area that has hung over the Czech defenseman’s head for years, his father’s revelations concerning Tomas’ displeasure at playing within Ron Wilson’s system has seemingly pitched the impending premium free agent against a coach many believed was already on a short leash.

What did strike home about the elder Kaberle’s remarks were those pertaining to Wilson’s brand of physical hockey. Although Wilson is a proponent of tough, run and gun hockey styled on his west coast coaching days, in Toronto he is simply applying his game plan to a physically ameliorated squad assembled by Brian Burke.

Call him the true architect in shifting the Leafs from washy dump and chase to puck pressuring physicality, Burke is now charged with resigning the Rakovnik native or else lose the one time golden commodity for nothing next summer.

For his part Kaberle Snr, a former World champion with the Czechoslovakian teams of the mid 70’s, has previously been vocal about his distaste for North American hockey and has helped muddy the waters for both his son and the Leafs moving forward while thrusting Tomas further into the limelight he reportedly loathes.

It seems in lieu of any tangible hockey related news stories both local and national media outlets have blown Frantisek Kaberle Snr’s. conjecture ridden statements out of all proportion and have suggested that were Brian Burke looking to save face over the defender and resign him, he first must exorcise the club of Team USA bench boss and long-time friend Ron Wilson.

If physicality is the issue, perhaps Frantisek best answer if Kaberle could fit on any Brian Burke club, less a coach who gave Kaberle more than an ample chance to raise his flagging value last season.

Of course this is all academic if Toronto come anywhere near mimicking last season’s grotesque start. A businessman first and foremost, most expect Burke will pull the trigger if Wilson’s continued line juggling and defensive experimentation wield poor results. To that effect, if the Leafs witness a precipitous rise in performance under Wilson, Burke would be remiss for tailoring the contractual demands of one player to the totality of the team.

Therefore one can assume if the team plays well and retain Wilson, Kaberle will not resign, or at least so his father would have fans believe. That of course would not only be contrary to the Czech’s purported desire for a cup run with his draft club, but also another of Kaberle seniors quotes “He is content in Toronto with both the club and the city.”

The measure of how content will only become apparent when Burke, Kaberle and agent Rick Curran sit down and discuss a contract renewal; one that will be capped by a ballpark figure only Brian Burke can quantify, but will surely factor the resigning of pending restricted free agents Schenn, Bozak and Gunnarson as well as addressing the clubs offensive shortfalls.

In short, the saga continues.

Meanwhile, Wilson is left with the question of how to implement Kaberle next season. Either appease him with ice time or play it straight. Much like his contractual value is relative to the clubs future core and offensive needs, his on ice utilization could be restricted by the newly minted captain Dion Phaneuf.

All but penciled in for the top pairing, consensus frontrunners for the former Flames partner appear to be Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle. The former would provide a formidable shutdown duo placing the offensive emphasis on Phaneuf, while the latter would suggest a balanced D with Kaberle forming the offensive pivot and Phaneuf doing the dirty work.

While no partnerships are set in stone, the sheer fact Kaberle now has: a. Competition for top pairing and, b. Padding for his “finesse” game, will provide a much needed test for his desire; and perhaps an indication of how far he has been removed from the days when the Muskoka Five ruled the locker room.

The ball may well be in Tomas Kaberle’s court after years of trade speculation has tilted back in his favor, but conversely only he can determine his value to the Leafs, to Brian Burke or to other GMs by how he competes for ice time and plays under Ron Wilson. If this offseason (which by all accounts is a weak wield of talent) is proving anything, UFA’s who overvalue themselves will find it difficult to find a home. Subsequently, if Kaberle refuses to permit a hometown discount, Burke is sure to absorb the backlash if he sees fit to let the veteran Leaf walk. After all, as bitter a resolution it would be, Burke is unlikely to overpay to keep Kaberle at the expense of his young stars and offensive targets.

So unhappy or not, in a contract year and no longer a tradable commodity, Kaberle best start playing to his own personal price tag or get dragged under the same bus that ran down Mats Sundin.