The Decline of Tomas Kaberle

TORONTO,ON - APRIL 3: Daniel Paille #20 of the Boston Bruins hammers Tomas Kaberle #15 of the Toronto Maple Leafs into the boards in a game on April 3, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Tomas Kaberle's days are numbered with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Perhaps that was true before this season even began but it's become far more evident as yet another non-playoff edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs winds down to a summer of second guessing and rebuilding.

Early on this year, and during much of last off-season, Kaberle's name was in regular circulation as a potential captain and his early season production indicated a level of rededication to his craft that was admirable.  His quarterbacking skills were amazingly valuable on the power play and the Leafs started off the year as one of the top units in the NHL with the man advantage.  He led NHL defensemen in points over the first part of the year and frankly looked like a keeper as the team was rebuilt in Brian Burke's new mold.

Despite his skills with the puck though, the team failed to win, and defensive woes were obviously a large part of the problem.  Improvement was needed in the Leafs zone, and Kaberle's area of expertise was at the other end of the ice.

As the season progressed, the team struggled mightily and fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference with some of the worst penalty killing in NHL history.  The Olympics and trade deadline quickly approached and it became inescapable that the 2009-10 Leafs were bound for an overhaul as Brian Burke reformulated the product on the ice.

Despite the fact that players Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek, Jonas Gustavsson, and yes, Tomas Kaberle were all named to Olympic hockey teams, the Leafs weren't working as a defensive unit and their penalty killing was atrocious.

The Olympics and NHL trade deadline may be the turning point for Tomas Kaberle's season and the beginning of the end of his career as a Toronto Maple Leaf.

As of February 8th, Kaberle had a +/- rating of -9.  Not particularly wonderful, but not bad on this Leafs team all things considered.  Since then, his +/- rating has dropped another -7, to it's current -16 level.  So what happened?  At the beginning of February, the Leafs made the first of their major trades of the season, sending Ian White, Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, and Jamal Mayers to Calgary in exchange for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and prospect Keith AulieVesa Toskala and Jason Blake were also dealt to Anaheim in exchange for goaltender J.S. Giguere.

Kaberle was likely shaken by the deal.  He may not have realized how much of a turnover Burke had in mind for the team or perhaps didn't expect such a fundamental change to the make up of the team and the defense pairings of the future.  Hagman was a valuable veteran under contract for coming seasons.  Blake was the Leafs top scorer from 2008-09 and under contract to the Leafs for another 2 years.  Vesa Toskala was the team's nominal starting goalie.  Stajan and White were career Leafs who had some of their best years ahead of them.  Obviously Burke's intentions were relatively earth shattering.

Despite the addition of Phaneuf, who to all appearances would give Kaberle his best partner on the point of the Leafs power play since the departure of Bryan McCabe, Kaberle's play seemed off.  He went away to the Olympics unsure of his future and discussion began around his being traded at the deadline.

On the March 3rd trading deadline, Lee Stempniak, and another career Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky were both dealt for picks and prospects.  Further trades likely shook Kaberle even more.  He decided to assert some level of control over his career prospects and offered Burke a very limited 3 team list with which he could discuss trading options.  Nothing was worked out but Kaberle had begun to stare reality in the face.

Since the day of the trading deadline, Kaberle's play has been anything but high caliber.  In fact since the day of the Ponikarovsky and Stempniak trades, Kaberle's numbers have been astonishingly bad.  He has produced 1 goal and 2 assists for 3 points in the past 19 games.  This after producing 46 points in the first 60 games of the season.  That's a drop from 0.77 ppg to 0.16 ppg or a decline of 79% in production.

Dion Phaneuf is the Leafs leading blue line scorer since his arrival, with 8 assists in 23 games, trumping Kaberle's 2 goals and 4 assists over the same stretch.  Kaberle's contributions are certainly being missed on offense as the power play's anemic production dissappoints with alarming regularity. The power play is now ranked 30th in the NHL, a sharp drop from the lofty heights of it's 2nd overall ranking back in October.

If Kaberle wished to decrease his trade value on the open market (and I have no idea what purpose that would serve), he's doing a bang up job of it.  NHL teams have room on their roster for strong offensive players who are relatively soft defensively.  Tomas Kaberle is currently neither strong defensively OR offensively.  He has been on the ice for 75 even strength goals against and only 58 even strength goals for.

The irony is that Kaberle may be playing himself into a position where Burke doesn't think he can get fair value on the trade market and thus he plays out his career for the Leafs.  Should that happen, it likely means his next season is his last one in Toronto.  Other NHL teams will likely be attempting to swindle Burke as much as possible when it comes to Kaberle and low ball offers may be amazingly common this summer.

It will be interesting to see what way things go but one thing remains certain: Tomas Kaberle's trade value pre-deadline was probably as high as it will ever get during his time in Toronto.  That reality is as unfortunate as it is worrying. 

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