Carter's the one that got away

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

Imagine if Tomas Kaberle had felt this way 11 months ago.

Imagine if the veteran defenceman would have been willing to at least contemplate waiving his no-movement clause at the February trade deadline, opening the door for the deal that could have sent him to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Most importantly, imagine how emerging star Jeff Carter, who entered play yesterday tied for the NHL scoring lead with 27, would potentially have accelerated -- or, at worst, augmented -- the rebuilding aspirations of the Maple Leafs.

The Flyers reportedly were poised to snap up Kaberle as part of a deal that would have sent Carter and a first-round draft pick to the Leafs. Those efforts were thwarted when Kaberle, as is his right, opted to remain in Toronto, the only NHL home he has known.

Kaberle's situation differed from that of Mats Sundin in that he was in the middle of a multi-year deal, whereas the captain's pact ended at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season.

Ever since Sundin signed with the Vancouver Canucks several weeks ago, he has been ripped in these parts for not looking out for the long-term future of the franchise he claimed he so loved. Enraged Leafs fans wanted to know why he didn't allow himself to be dealt for a package of picks and prospects, leaving himself the option of returning in the summer as a free agent.

Just imagine what a Kaberle trade might have netted.

Interestingly, both Carter and Kaberle were named as reserves for the Eastern Conference all-star squad yesterday and will be teammates for the game Jan. 25 in Montreal. Small world, this National Hockey League.

Carter, for his part, was aware of the rumours that were swirling around him last year. As a native of London, Ont., the scuttlebutt was running hot and heavy up here in The Great White North.

"I got some calls from family and friends," Carter, 24, admitted yesterday during a phone interview from the Philadelphia area. "But as a player, you try not to think about those things. You have to remain focused on the task at hand."

As the 11th overall pick in 2003, Carter's potential was never in doubt. But some critics in the City of Brotherly Loathe wondered why he did not seem to be developing as quickly as fellow boy wonder Mike Richards, who was selected 13 spots behind Carter by the Flyers in what had to be one of the most lucrative first rounds turned in by any team.

Ironically, it was an injury to Richards last season that provided the stage for Carter to pull up his hockey socks and become one of the team's cornerstones.

"I think a lot of my recent success comes from confidence," Carter said. "When Richie was hurt near the trade deadline, I wanted to step up and take a bigger role. I guess it's just part of the maturing process."

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren agrees.

"He always has been a great skater and a kid who could really shoot the puck," Holmgren said last night. "Now he's accepting his responsibilities out on the ice. He's really using his strength for his benefit.

"And I think he's still going to develop and get better. Don't forget, I don't think he's stopped growing yet."

There's a scary thought, considering Carter is listed in the Flyers media guide at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.

In a league where team loyalty has disappeared from the sport like the bench-clearing brawl has, Kaberle's desire to stay in Toronto is rare. And, according to his handlers, he has yet to be approached by general manager Brian Burke about waiving his no-trade deal.

Still, when the Leafs take on the Flyers tomorrow evening on Hockey Night in Canada, some viewers will watch Carter and Kaberle on the ice together and wonder: What would it be like had Kaberle been more flexible last winter?

One can only imagine.


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