BROSSARD, Que. – Tomas Kaberle had some of his best games at the Bell Centre playing against the Montreal Canadiens for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now he’ll see how it is to be part of the home team.
The veteran defenceman, who was acquired Friday in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, will wear his No. 22 Canadiens jersey at home for the first time Tuesday night against the visiting New York Islanders.
”I’m happy here. I always loved to play against Montreal and now I’m playing for them,” the 33- year-old said Monday. ”There have been some up and downs.
”Obviously I want to show I can play and this is the right spot. A Canadian team. Original Six. You’re always under the microscope. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Kaberle, playing on his fourth team in 10 months, won’t know what kind of welcome awaits him at his new home rink until he skates onto the ice.
When the deal was announced, it was savagely panned by fans and media who pointed to the Czech defenceman’s weak play that started last season and carried into his first 29 games with Carolina, who signed him to a three-year contract paying US$4.25 million per season as a free agent in July.
His detractors were stunned to see Kaberle have an instant impact on Montreal’s moribund power play as he picked up two assists in the Canadiens’ 2-1 victory in New Jersey on Saturday afternoon.
It was only one game, but for the first time in months he looked like the strong puck mover and clever power-play quarterback he was in his best days with the Leafs.
And after collecting four assists in his final two games with Carolina, he has six points in the last three.
”I’ll do my best here and work hard, that’s all I can control,” he said. ”Hopefully I’ll fit in well with my new teammates.”
The Canadiens needed the help. After going 1-for-5 in New Jersey they remain 28th in the 30-team league on the power play with an 11.8 per cent success rate.
Kaberle started a play that led to Max Pacioretty’s power-play goal, and got another assist when Erik Cole scored just after a man advantage ended.
P.K. Subban, who played the point with the new rearguard, was impressed with Kaberle’s skill and smarts at getting the puck to the right teammate at the right time.
”A little dish and the puck’s in the back of the net,” said Subban. ”He does that really well.
”Growing up in Toronto, I hate to say it, but I watched him do it really well with the Leafs for a long time. I saw Brian McCabe kind of flourish from that. So you know he’s a great player and I look forward to playing with him.”
Montreal has badly missed Andrei Markov, who suffered his second torn anterior cruciate ligament in as many seasons last November. The Russian signed a new three-year contract in the summer and was expected back for the start of the season, but setbacks have pushed his return to after the all-star break in January.
Last December, general manager Pierre Gauthier reached out for point man James Wisniewski to fill the Markov void. This time, it was Kaberle, who was acquired in exchange for veteran defenceman Jaroslav Spacek.
Things have not gone well for the Rakovnik, Czech Republic native since before the Leafs dealt him to Boston on Feb. 18 for prospect Joe Colbourne and two draft picks.
Kaberle never fit in with the Bruins, and certainly didn’t help their struggling power play even if the team ended up winning its first Stanley Cup since 1972.
In Carolina, he looked sluggish at the start of the season. Kaberle feels he has started to find his groove this month.
It was too late for the Hurricanes, whose GM Jim Rutherford said signing Kaberle was a mistake.
Kaberle was aware of Rutherford’s comments and doesn’t dispute that he was a disappointment in Carolina.
”I know I didn’t have a good start to the season but the last two or three weeks I felt a lot better,” he said. ”I felt my game was coming along and I hope I can maintain that and get even better.
”We didn’t play well as a team and I also didn’t play well. Things happen. I wish it would have gone better, for me and for management, but I just want to look forward, not look back.”
It was the second time this season the Canadiens have picked up a veteran from the Hurricanes and they hope this one works as well as their signing of Cole—a former Carolina winger—who has been one of their best players this season. Cole is second on the team in goals with 10 and has been a leader on and off the ice.
Kaberle is expected to remain paired with Alexei Emelin, a first-year rearguard who has impressed with his physical play. Emelin leads the team and is 18th in the NHL with 79 hits in only 22 games.
Veteran Hal Gill also pairs with a newcomer in Raphael Diaz, while the most ice time goes to Subban and Josh Gorges, who coach Jacques Martin called ”one of the best shutdown pairs in the league.”
That leaves Chris Campoli as odd man out. The veteran was injured in the opening game of the regular season. He has been ready to return for some time, but it appeared Monday he will continue to sit out. They also have defenceman Yannick Weber playing as a forward on the fourth line.
And the Canadiens are without forward Brian Gionta, who will miss at least a week with what Martin calls a lower body injury, and centre Scott Gomez, who has missed eight games with an undisclosed injury.
Gomez skated in a no-contact jersey in place of Travis Moen, who was given a day off practice.
The Canadiens’ three games this week are all at home, where they’ve struggled to a 4-5-6 record thus far, including 0-1-3 in their last four games.