The Boston Bruins have had some of hockey's most highly skilled defensemen dating back to Eddie Shore and progressing to other Hall of Famers such as Brad Park, Ray Bourque and of course the man who revolutionized the game with his offensive skills, Bobby Orr.
The Bruins have lacked a defenseman who could pass the puck with precision since Bourque was traded to Colorado in 2000.
A week before the National Hockey League trade deadline expired, the Boston Bruins landed the player they most coveted by obtaining defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Boston's first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, a conditional second-round selection in 2012 and minor league center Joe Colborne, who was Boston's first-round pick in 2008.
Kaberle landed in Boston with the reputation of being a smooth-passing power play specialist. The plan is for the 32-year-old blueliner to use his passing ability to set up Zdeno Chara for the 104.5 mph slap shot the Bruins captain possesses.
Kaberle has performed in four games for Boston. He notched his first point as a Bruin Saturday night in the club's 3-1 win over the Canucks in Vancouver with an assist on winger Nathan Horton's even-strength, game-winning goal.
The impact the native of Rakovnik, Czech Republic has had cannot be overstated. Kaberle brings a quiet confidence in his puck-retrieving and puck-handling abilities, but it is his passing skills that set him apart from most of the other rear guards around the league.
A coach is always happy to see his defenseman win races to loose pucks in the defensive zone and move it quickly into the neutral zone. This is usually done by banking the puck off the glass past the forecheckers and point men. It is the "safe" play, and all back-liners are trained to do it.
It is becoming increasingly rare for a coach to be able to have a player who can skate to a puck, turn up ice and make a tape-to-tape pass to a waiting forward who can skate the puck out of the zone. To do this, a player needs to know what he is going to do with the puck before he gets it. He needs to know where his teammates are at all times. Surprisingly, there are not many players who have refined this skill.
That "first pass" is a skill scouts look for in all defensemen. The ones who can make it consistently give their team a decided edge in beginning the attack, with speed, through the neutral zone and into the attacking zone.
The first pass has become something Bruins head coach Claude Julien does not need to be concerned with when Kaberle is on the ice, and since he is averaging around 21:00 of ice time per game, the Bruins have the advantage of relying on him to begin their attack.
Kaberle's efforts are not going unnoticed by his new teammates.
Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas told the Boston Herald he is impressed with Kaberle's passing abilities.
“When he passes the puck...the puck is completely flat,” Thomas said. “Some guys just have that knack. I was thinking about it at the All-Star Game, when I saw (Detroit star Nicklas) Lidstrom make a long pass to (Colorado’s Matt) Duchene. The best passers, when they make a pass, it just seems to stick on the other guy’s stick—even without the other guy trying."
Kaberle's skating ability is not spoken about, but he has the mobility and agility to rarely be caught out of position in his defensive zone. He reads and anticipates plays. Due to his excellent skating, he is able to intercept passes or force the opposing puck carrier wide so they are forced to make plays from along the boards instead of getting a direct lane to the Bruins' net.
Kaberle's change of uniform has made other teams sit up and take notice.
The New York Rangers have acquired former Florida Panther captain Bryan McCabe to be their power play quarterback. He has appeared in 1,117 NHL games and has amassed 522 points on 143 goals and 379 assists. McCabe will help New York, but at 35 and after 15 seasons, how much is left in the tank?
Montreal went out and traded with Atlanta for defenseman Brent Sopel. Sopel is a stay-at-home defenseman who is adept at shutting down opponents' top lines. Sopel was a member of last season's Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. He is in his 12th NHL season. In 548 career games, he has a total of 218 points and is a plus-33.
Before adding Sopel to the roster, Les Canadiens brought Paul Mara back into the fold from the Anaheim Ducks. Mara is not known for his offense. He has scored 249 points in 717 games over the course of 13 seasons. The New Jersey native also carries a hefty minus-111 for his career.
Pittsburgh picked up young (24 years old) defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas. Niskanen is a speedy player who plays with a bit of an edge, but he is not an offensive threat, as his 82 points in four seasons attest.
Finally, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who currently stand in second place in the Eastern Conference, shored up their defense with the acquisition of St. Louis Blues captain Eric Brewer. Brewer has the ability to be a setup man on the power play much like Boston's Kaberle. However, with St. Louis, the 6'3", 220-pound blueliner had the role of a defensive defenseman and looks to fill the same role in Tampa.
The Boston Bruins have leveled the playing field with the other Eastern Conference elite teams. That is unless other Eastern Conference teams make a play for an offensive defenseman that possesses better offensive skills than Tomas Kaberle, and at this point it does not appear anyone who is in his class is available unless a blockbuster is pulled off before Monday's trade deadline.
Boston is on a six-game road trip through western Canada. The Bruins have played five and won all five of those games and sit in third place in the East They are only two points behind Tampa Bay and trail first-place Philadelphia by seven points.
The Bruins have 20 games remaining with 18 against Eastern Conference clubs. Knowing this, it is clear to see Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli had that in mind when he finalized the deal with Toronto general manager Brian Burke. Chiarelli made the deal to swing momentum in the Eastern Conference in Boston's favor.
If the four games in which Kaberle has played as a Bruin are any indication of his effect not only on his team but indeed the Eastern Conference, the move will make the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup favorites when the playoffs begin in April.