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Maple Leafs Watch: Stress taking toll on Kaberle

In the most recent issue of The Hockey News, my colleague Eric Duhatschek wrote a very interesting piece on San Jose Sharks defenseman Rob Blake, the stalwart potential Hall of Famer who is having a rebirth in the Bay Area.

As recent as last season, when Blake was a member of the struggling Los Angeles Kings, the future didn’t look so rosy for the former Norris Trophy winner. The bottom-dwelling Kings were often hemmed in their own zone and that put a lot of pressure on a veteran defenseman who had already logged his share of ice time in the league and is most effective when manning the point in the offensive end.

Why the turnaround in San Jose? As Blake pointed out in the article, he’s on a better team now. His offensive skills have the space to flourish once again and if he doesn’t log 25 minutes a night, his team can still win.

Which brings us to Toronto’s lone candidate in this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, defenseman Tomas Kaberle.

Basically an all-star selection by default, Kaberle has not looked like himself this season and it finally clicked for me when I read the THN Blake piece; the burden is heavy for a veteran blueliner on a bad team. Fellow Czech rearguard Pavel Kubina is experiencing the same, though Kubina has had more flashes of greatness and less of the spotlight.

After all, if fans of the Buds could count on one thing in the past decade, it was Kaberle’s unparalleled ability to evade the first forechecker on a breakout, not to mention a sometimes-maddening refusal to shoot on the power play, which nonetheless became an assist on someone else’s man-advantage marker seconds later.

Let us not pretend for a second those skills have evaporated. In fact, as the statistics bear out, Kaberle is on pace to have a better season than he did last year. That puck-moving ability that will make him the No. 1 target of some contending teams at the trade deadline is clearly still in effect; the blueliner is on pace to have less turnovers than he did last season, while he should also eclipse or at least match his point total of 53 from 2007-08.

But alas, the wins aren’t coming as they used to.

And here’s where the Blake comparison comes in. The Leafs have had an awful time with defensive zone coverage this season, perhaps because there are so many new faces on the blueline, not to mention a constant rotation of pairings due to injuries. And when the coverage breaks down, the goaltending has not bailed the team out.

This naturally accounts for the large number of goals the Buds have given up and not coincidentally, affects Kaberle – they guy expected to move the puck out of the zone most often.

That’s the thing about pressure, it just keeps building.

So when ‘Kabs’ is hanging out with his all-star buddies in Montreal this weekend, maybe taking part in the most accurate shot competition, he’ll do so in a stress-free atmosphere.

And that will be a first for this season.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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