Room to roam, again

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- It looks as if Brian Burke was on to something when he suggested earlier this year that veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle would rebound this season because he wouldn't be "picking his teeth out of the glass all night".

The Maple Leafs general manager figures that Kaberle will shine with a tough, grinding blue-line partner beside him, because he won't have to worry about being manhandled anymore. And so far at camp -- and in last night's pre-season game, Kaberle's first of the season -- the smooth-skating Czech looks like a younger version of himself with tough newcomer Mike Komisarek lined up on his right.

"Having a big body, a mean defenceman, stay-at-home type, to play with Kabba ... Kabba needs somebody who's going to stay at home and it'll open the ice for him," coach Ron Wilson said. "I'll try to keep them together to see if there is a chemistry and we'll go from there."

Never mind that Kaberle picked up two assists during last night's 4-0 Toronto victory over the "home team" Philadelphia Flyers in front of a packed John Labatt Centre. What stood out most was his poise and confidence.

One game, of course, does not a season make, but Kaberle has had a spring in his stride since camp broke last week. He is taking the extra second to find the best man to pass to and seems to be willing to carry the puck a little longer on the rush.

Burke has added toughness and youth to this year's team, but one thing this team does not possess in abundance is offence. A healthy, confident Kaberle could make a huge difference in whether the Leafs make it to the post-season -- as Burke expects -- or finds themselves on the outside looking in for a fifth season in a row.

Kaberle's play the past four years has mirrored that of his team. His numbers have fallen steadily, from a career-high of 67 points in 2005-06 to 58, 53 and, last year 31, though he played only 57 games because of a broken hand.

Burke almost shipped out Kaberle this summer when the Czech's no-trade clause expired for a few weeks. But when the right deal failed to materialize, the GM decided the veteran could be an asset.

"I'm happy to be here," Kaberle said last night. "I always wanted to be here and I'm looking forward to making the playoffs this season."

Last night, he easily could have had another assist or two, and almost scored in the second period.

For the second night in a row, it was the youth brigade that stood out most for the Leafs. Local boy Nazem Kadri was, at least for two periods, the best player on the ice while Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson -- also performed well.

Tough guy Jay Rosehill, who recorded 275 minutes in penalties in the AHL last year, played a strong game, dropping the gloves, picking up an assist and hitting anything that moved. And rookie defenceman Jesse Blacker, the club's second-round pick this summer, also looked impressive, as he has all camp.

"Jesse is going to be a great hockey player," Wilson said. "He's very fast and very confident. He was telling Kabba where he wanted him on the 5-on-3. It was funny to listen to."

The Leafs jumped into a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Lee Stempniak and Kadri. Mikhail Grabovski scored with 34 seconds left in the second before Hanson completed the scoring at 14:26 of the third.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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