Tomas Kaberle finds himself in an unfamiliar position for a professional athlete who has spent his entire 12-year professional career with one team: his strengths as a person and as a player go unrecognized.
Unappreciated by fans, the puck-moving defenseman has become somewhat of a whipping boy for GM Brian Burke, who routinely throws his name out in public to generate fan interest in the hockey club.
Let’s take a look at recent history. Last summer, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke took to the talk radio circuit with Kaberle’s trade window approaching.
Brusque and sounding confident, Burke stated he was open for offers on the puck-moving defenseman, fueling endless trade speculation which was vociferously discussed on the airwaves and made headlines in print.
Rick Curran, the player’s agent, blasted Burke for his public posturing.
“What [Kaberle] does not appreciate, what he does not enjoy, is being front-page topic of conversation every time Brian decides that he’s got to churn the waters a little bit in order to create a little interest.
“That’s fine. Pick up the phone and call your general manager colleagues. Talk to them about it. But don’t make him front-page news. He didn’t ask for it.
"He realizes that it’s part of it, of being a Toronto Maple Leaf, but don’t ask him to sit back and enjoy it,” Curran said.
Burke’s public statements proved all the more vexing as the talk surrounding Kaberle only hurt the player’s trade value on the open market. It’s hard to imagine Detroit’s classy Ken Holland pursuing a similar strategy.
Making waves is nothing new for Burke, however. In the weeks leading up to the 2009 NHL entry draft, he said on several occasions that the Leafs were close to landing the first overall pick, who would later be John Tavares, only to fall far short.
What makes the Tomas Kaberle saga all the more puzzling is that the player has indicated a desire to remain with the organization, loves the city and is willing to take a hometown discount to stay—a rarity for professional athletes.
Kaberle, a soft-spoken individual, has never been known to be a problem in the Leafs dressing room.
“For anyone who knows him, he’s a very quiet, laid back, conservative young man. He has made it very clear what his intentions are. He wants to stay in Toronto,” Curran said.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Kaberle is the longest-serving member on the current squad. Worse still, head coach Ron Wilson stripped Kaberle of the assistant’s “A.”
Kaberle’s style of play is reminiscent of former Leaf great Borje Salming, a skilled puck-moving defenseman whose strengths lay in his on-ice smarts and sound positional play. The Leafs faithful revered Salming for his commitment to a losing team.
Fast forward a generation later and Kaberle is the Salming of his era: quiet, professional and having the misfortune of playing the best years of his career for an uncompetitive team which is heading in the wrong direction fast.
Leaf fans then seemed appreciative of the skill set that Salming brought to the back end. The fact that Salming never fought didn’t seem to bother fans, the coaching staff or management.
Times have changed. Kaberle doesn’t get the same love Salming once did. August featured a whirlwind of trade talk, much of it on the city’s sports radio stations which were abuzz with callers trading Kaberle to this team or that for this pick or that player.
Rumours around a possible deal for Kaberle date back two years, which coincides with Burke’s arrival in town.
At the entry draft in 2009, Burke was talking to everybody and anybody about a deal for Kaberle, so it was reported in the mainstream media.
From a hockey perspective, it’s hard to rationalize why the Leafs are so willing to move Kaberle.
A smooth-skating defenseman, Kaberle can skate with the puck, quarterback the power play and may possess the best outlet pass in hockey.
A model of consistency, Kaberle has finished in the top 10 for defensemen in scoring in four of the past five seasons, despite playing for a non-playoff team.
Kaberle’s apparent weakness, his lack of “truculence,” may be his greatest asset, allowing him to prolong his career and play well into his 30s injury free, much like Detroit’s Niklas Lidstrom.
Kaberle’s more nuanced style of play—the way he moves the puck on the power play or uses his on-ice awareness and positioning for defence—appears lost on Leafs management.
Burke’s handling of Tomas Kaberle has been a head-scratcher from day one. You need to look long and hard to find the last time an NHL executive tried to dump a long-serving player so aggressively, so publicly, for so long.
It’s a lesson in human relations that Kaberle won’t forget all too soon. When unrestricted free agency looms this summer, Kaberle will surely move on, and Burke will be left with nothing for the player except his very public pronouncements.