Kubina eager to earn keep

Pavel Kubina had his first goal as a Toronto Maple Leaf against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday...

Pavel Kubina had his first goal as a Toronto Maple Leaf against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, a positive sign as the often-criticized veteran defenceman looks to live up to his hefty salary. (Toronto Sun File/Stan Behal)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Pavel Kubina knows he has a $20-million US black cloud looming over his head.

Every mistake, every giveaway, every game without a goal turned in by the veteran Maple Leafs defenceman ignites the same old waves of criticism.

How, his detractors constantly ask, can this guy possibly be worth the four-year deal averaging $5 million per season that general manager John Ferguson threw at him last summer?

It's a question that once again reached Kubina's ears this weekend, especially since he finally scored his first goal in a Leafs uniform during a 4-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night.

The goal was a long time coming for the hulking Czech defenceman, who understands that his whopping contract always will be weighing on the minds of the fans.

"I'm aware of it but I'm always one of the guys who puts pressure on myself anyway," Kubina said. "I know I have to be one of the best guys every night."

That had not been the case as the Leafs hit the midway mark of the season. But Kubina vows he'll improve down the stretch.

"I've got to be better in the second half," he said. "I want to reach the playoffs with this team. The crowd will go crazy if that happens. We have a good team and we can do a lot of damage if we get there."

Kubina recently got a kick-start when coach Paul Maurice shuffled his defence pairings, reuniting Kubina with countryman Tomas Kaberle.

"I know I can be much better and I think my game picked up when I started playing with Kabby," Kubina said. "We just understand each other because we played together in the past with the national team."

Kubina's roller-coaster ride with the Leafs kicked off just hours after he signed with Toronto on July 1 when an opposing general manager remarked that he would not have paid Kubina more than $2.5 million per season.

An early season knee ailment kept Kubina out of the lineup for a month, a devastating blow for a player who had never suffered such a significant injury.

When he finally was poised to return for a game in Boston, Kubina got word that his girlfriend was about to give birth to the couple's first child in the Czech Republic.

He immediately flew home to see his girlfriend and the baby before returning to North America several days later.

"It was a tough start for me," he said. "(The knee) was the most serious injury I ever had. I didn't get injured for a long time with Tampa Bay.

"I was just happy I didn't have to have surgery. That was good news.

"I worked hard, tried to come back as soon as possible. Then the baby. At the time I was just getting ready to come back and I had to fly home. That meant so much to me that the organization let me go there. I thank them so much.

"It was a difficult start and even after the injury I wasn't playing well. I'm still not playing the way I should."


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