Filip Kuba heard the criticism.
It came from newspaper headlines. And from fans ratcheting their vocal cords at Scotiabank Place, the Senators’ playground.
Losing sucks enough, but, with his team struggling, Kuba was under a microscope.
At 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, the 35-year-old didn’t and doesn’t play a big man’s game. And that was sometimes mistaken for complacency.
Coming off seasons of 40 and 28 points, he sputtered to just 16.
His minus-26 was among the NHL’s worst.
That was then, this is now.
A year later, Kuba has been rejuvenated.
He’s not vocal about the turnaround, that’s not his style.
It’s been silent redemption, proving others wrong, proving what he knew all along — that he could make a difference in his own way, even if it didn’t mean driving an opposing forward through the boards.
Thirty-one points (heading into Saturday), with a plus-28 (among the league’s best), show that he knows how to play the game. The critics have been muzzled.
That’s what winning does: Turns goats into heroes.
In his free-agent season, and making a comfortable salary of $3.7 million, Kuba has been a solid, steadying force on the Senators’ blue line — and at least a bit responsible for the rise to stardom of defence partner Erik Karlsson.
“I’ve known Filip a long time,” said Senators GM Bryan Murray. “He is a talented, offensive type of defenceman. He’s got good puck skills and great vision. He’s a real calm player. What happened with him last year — we didn’t have a very good team. He had a broken leg coming out of camp and was way behind everybody. When he did play, we weren’t very good and things just went from bad to worse.
“He was down. But a lot of us were down. It was a tough year.
“I don’t think Filip ever quit on himself. I don’t think he’s that kind of guy. He’s never going to show a lot of emotion. But he’s a guy who does care about his personal game and about the team. I see a big difference in him this season.”
Kuba arrived at training camp ready to go. A summer spent in his native Czech Republic was relaxing. He did what he has spent several summers doing, racing his Sabaru Impreza on hillclimb circuits, following in his father’s footsteps.
“Racing cars, it’s the adrenaline,” said Kuba. “When you cross the finish line, you feel the adrenaline rush.”
It’s a rush he gets when he contributes to the Senators’ success, a feeling he’s certainly enjoyed much more often in the past few months.
Karlsson credits the veteran with being a big contributor.
“He really stepped it up this year and he’s been a big part of our success,” said Karlsson. “Me and Kubs are on the same page. It’s been a good mix with us two.”
“Having a veteran partner was important for Erik,” said Murray. “I don’t think there was any question Erik was going to become a dynamic player. Having a personality like Filip with him, I’m sure that’s helped a lot.
“His calmness on the ice allows Erik to go do his thing. He gets back fairly well. He’s not going to be a physical defender, but he has good stick position.”
“It’s been great,” said Kuba. “(Erik’s) having an unbelievable season. We play well together. We have good chemistry. We know where the other guy is.”
On-ice success for the Senators was maybe unexpected, but the players knew they had something to prove.
“Last year was tough for everyone,” said Karlsson. “It’s hard to single out one guy. The whole team underachieved.”
“It’s not fun when you’re not winning,” said Kuba. “But you have to get over it and get ready for the next season. We did a really good job preparing ourselves this summer.”
For a kid who was drafted in the eight round, 192nd overall, and has bounced around from Florida to Minnesota to Tampa, then to Ottawa, life is pretty good.
“My goal was to play for the men’s team when I grew up,” said Kuba. “I never really thought about playing in the NHL until I was drafted. I’m glad I can be part of this great league.”
And the Senators are only too happy to have him.