ATLANTA -- The other day, for no particular reason, Paul Maurice began talking about the two Maple Leafs teams. The one with Tomas Kaberle and the one without him.
He stopped, smiled, and then stated the obvious: "We're a lot better with him."
Of all that has happened in the many incarnations of Kaberle's time in Toronto -- the surprise beginning, the redoubtable middle -- few ever make this point: In his eighth NHL season, Kaberle is the Leafs' best player.
More valuable than Mats Sundin at this stage. Worlds ahead of McCabe. Not just the best Leaf on the ice most nights, but the smartest also.
You saw flashes of it last night in a game that had almost no flashes of anything. Here in Atlanta, where interest in this convoluted playoff run is almost non-existent and the town is all gaga over this weekend's Final Four in college basketball, the Leafs and Thrashers matched that level of expectation.
They each did a whole lot of nothing -- I don't remember a game where goaltenders had so few significant shots to save -- playing from the beginning as though either would be happy to get a point. The one point would all but guarantee Atlanta first place. The one point would move the Leafs past the New York Islanders and the dead body called the Carolina Hurricanes. The second point? A bonus for whomever got it.
In between all that indifference, there was the occasional flash of Kaberle. He made one of those wondrous passes only and a handful of Leafs could make to put Alex Steen in position to score. Only Steen couldn't finish it.
Before that, Kaberle was killing a penalty, intercepted a pass, carried the puck up ice, crossed the blueline, looked like he was going to make an offensive play, changed his mind, turned, exited the zone, and skated back with the puck to his own blueline.
That is not something we advise you try at home.
Bobby Orr used to make those kind of plays. Not to oversell the point, but who else could make that play in today's hockey? Who else would have the calm, the confidence, the puck control to act as if he was the only player on the ice at that given moment.
This is what Kaberle can do that no other Leaf can. He may not match his assist total of a year ago, partly because the Leafs power play isn't as dominant and partly because of the games he missed due to concussion. But one year after a career high, you can comfortably call this his most complete NHL season.
There is no official scorecard for vision in hockey. It's one of those rare qualities you either have or you don't.
The contrast is also evident when comparing Kaberle with the two higher paid Leafs defencemen, McCabe and Pavel Kubina. Neither can skate like Kaberle. Neither can pass like him. Neither has his on-ice calm.
For that, McCabe earns some $3 million US more this year and Kubina takes home about $800,000 more. Typically, Kaberle says nothing about that. He says nothing about just about everything.
The best defencemen in hockey are old guys. Nik Lidstrom, the Norris Trophy favourite is 36. Scott Niedermayer is 33 and one year older than Chris Pronger.
Kaberle is a year away from being 30. He's not far from their age, or their level.