A Paean to Kaberle

On October 13, 1998, Tomas Kaberle, then a boy, only 20 years young, registered the first point of his NHL career. It was an assist, of course, on a Garry Valk goal. And it came on the power play, of course. Little did we know at the time, but the assist would be the first of many.

On December 20, 2010, to little fanfare, Kaberle, now 32 years old, tallied assist number 419 of his career. It also came on the power play, this time on a John Mitchell goal. I know what you’re thinking: What in holy hell was John Mitchell doing on the power play? But that’s not the point. (The point being: Fire Wilson.) Along with his 81 career goals, Kaberle’s 419th assist gave him 500 points.

Kaberle, an afterthought, drafted 204th overall in 1996, whose rosy cheeks came out of nowhere in 1998 to make Pat Quinn’s new-look Toronto Maple Leafs, had done it: 500 points. In the long and storied history of the franchise, only 10 players, and only one other defenceman, the legendary Borje Salming, have put up more points. Think about that for a minute or two. Ponder it. Have a coffee, stare out your window, and contemplate the fact.

For comparison’s sake, 22 Montreal Canadiens have registered 500 or more points. Kaberle’s milestone is no small feat. From Garry Valk to Mats Sundin, Sergei Berezin to Steve Thomas, Jonas Hoglund to Derek King, Tie Domi to Darcy Tucker, Alex Mogilny to Gary Roberts, Eric Lindros to Jason Allison, Nik Antropov to Alex Ponikarovsky, Phil Kessel to Kris Versteeg, and finally Mikhail Grabovski to John freakin’ Mitchell, Kaberle, like you and I, has been there through it all; has assisted on goals by each of those guys. In the end, no matter what you think of him, give it up, and show Kaberle some love.

A throwback

I’ve always held Kaberle in high regard; always had a soft spot for him. (Not where you think, sicko.) But I’ll be the first to admit that Tomas is not without his faults. He’s never been the physical defenceman so many want him to be. He’ll always be a touch too soft. Tomas, lord knows, will never shoot the puck enough. But it’s through those faults that I’ve come to appreciate Kaberle even more. Like you and I, he’s not perfect. He’s done the best he can with his abilities, and he’s done pretty well, wouldn’t you say?

Over the past two years, I’ve embraced advanced baseball statistics. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted at FanGraphs. Today, I’m a contributor at NotGraphs, FanGraphs’ alternative baseball blog. While I’ve waded into the sabermetric deep end, and mock with my fellow sabernerds those who still come at me with a baseball player’s OPS, I can readily admit that I know next to nothing about advanced NHL statistics. Corsi Ratings, Fenwick Numbers, Zone Starts, Quality of Competition, they’re all gibberish to me. I’m a journalist. Numbers, of any kind, prove difficult. I’m not sure I can be a two-sport sabermetric nerd, the blogging equivalent of Bo Jackson, or Deion Sanders.

I bring this up because, in a sense, it’s all worked out rather conveniently. I watch Kaberle night in and night out not worried about his Corsi rating, or his Fenwick score. I watch Kaberle as a sort of throwback defenceman. I sit back and appreciate what I’ve always appreciated about Tomas Kaberle: His innate ability to pass the puck; his skill in rushing the puck up ice, and, on the power play, taking the opponent’s blue line; his patience, the juking and jiving, along with the head-fakes. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching Kaberle for his tremendous abilities in the basics of this beautiful game of hockey that captivates us all.

Through the wire

In the final year of his contract, every game could be Kaberle’s last in Toronto. I don’t expect Tomas to be a life-long Maple Leaf. I think I’d only be setting myself up for disappointment if I did. But I believe Kaberle when he repeatedly says, as he did over the excruciating summer, that he wants to remain a Maple Leaf, and retire a Maple Leaf.

You see, Kaberle’s not so different from you and I. Like us, Kaberle has lived through both the good and bad times, the good and bad teams, in Toronto. And much like us, he wants to stick around. As we soldier on as Maple Leafs fans, so too does Kaberle as a Maple Leaf. Tomas isn’t interested in jumping ship. Why? Because, like you and I, Kaberle knows how good it can be around here. And I’ll never flog him for that.

I’ll understand if Brian Burke asks Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause. Considering the state of the union, it would be prudent for Burke to get a return on one of the team’s few tradable assets. I’ll also understand if Kaberle and the Maple Leafs go their separate ways on July 1. It’s a business. But I’ll be damned if I won’t celebrate one of the finest players to ever put on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, and don’t ask you to as well.

A legacy

Have a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ record books. Littered throughout, you’ll find Tomas Kaberle’s name. Eighth in games played; fifth in assists; eleventh in points. Should Tomas remain a Maple Leaf in the years to come, Rick Vaive (537), Ted Kennedy (560), Bob Pulford (563), and Frank Mahovlich’s (597) point totals are all within sight. One more long-term contract and Tomas Kaberle could go down as the seventh-highest scoring Toronto Maple Leaf, ever. Not bad for a shy young man from Rakovnik, a small town in the western Czech Republic.

Through all my years as a fan, dating back to the early 90s when this unbelievable journey began, I own two Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys. One of them is Kaberle’s. Thanks, Tomas.

For regular installments of Kaberle love, visit Navin Vaswani at Sports And The City, and follow @eyebleaf on Twitter. 

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