It is a brisk sunny morning in hockey-crazed Toronto and Tomas Kaberle, a rare bright spot during this frosty start to the Maple Leaf season, has a reason to smile.
One glance at the NHL scoring leaders tells you why.
There, among the top 10 point producers in the league, is Kaberle, who, as of Thursday, was tied for 10th with 20 points, tops among NHL defencemen.
“It’s cool,” admitted the normally understated Kaberle when asked about seeing his name among the Ovechkins and Thorntons.
“Cool” is a very applicable term when it comes to discussing Kaberle.
On one hand, it describes his demeanour out on the ice, always seemingly calm in the heat of battle.
Unfortunately, “cool” also describes the reception he sometimes gets from the demanding members of Leafs Nation.
Maybe it’s because they don’t think he shoots enough. Or is tough enough. Or is good enough in his own end. All legitimate gripes.
And when he showed his loyalty to the team and the city by refusing to waive his no trade in 2008, squashing a deal that would have netted the Leafs Jeff Carter and a first-round pick from the Philadelphia Flyers, he was ripped by the same zealots he wanted to keep playing in front of.
Yet he remains a glutton for punishment. No matter how unappreciated he seems to be, Tomas Kaberle wants to stay a Leaf.
“I think Mats (Sundin) was the same way as me,” Kaberle said. “Mats loved it here. He hated to lose. After the games, if we got beat, he would get mad. He wanted so bad to win here.
“I feel the same. I love it here. I love the fans. My family loves it here. I want to win here. Things aren’t going well now but it’s not like I’m going to say: ‘Lets move on: I’m going somewhere else.’
“I love the pressure here. You hear things said about you when things are bad. That keeps you motivated.”
During this past offseason, Kaberle almost found himself a Boston Bruin as part of a deal for Phil Kessel. A caveat in his contract made his no-trade clause moot from the June draft through Aug. 15.
“I talked to Brian Burke at the end of last season and he was honest, which I liked. He told me if there was a good offer to make the team better, he’d do it.”
Now Kessel and Kaberle are Maple Leaf teammates.
“Sometimes you don’t realize just how good a guy is until you play with him,” Kessel said. “He’s really good.”
With an assist in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to Minnesota, Kaberle moved ahead of Doug Gilmour on the Leafs all-time scoring list. He already surpassed Wendel Clark in October. And he is on the verge of whizzing by Tim Horton into second place among top scoring defencemen in franchise history, trailing only Borje Salming.
Unlike the popular Gilmour and Clark, Kaberle has never felt the public love those two icons did. And probably never will.
Instead, he’ll keep hearing the crowd’s chants of “shoooooooot!” whenever he’s in the opposing end.
“I hear them,” he said. “But sometimes its better to be patient than to shoot it right at a guy’s shin guard.”
He also heard coach Ron Wilson’s message last season that he needed to be in better shape. Knowing a flabby Kabby was not much use to the team, Kaberle dropped seven lbs; now goes for regular bike rides; and vigorously works out in the gym.
All this from one of the best bargains in the league. Credit the much-maligned John Ferguson for inking him to a long-term deal worth an annual salary of $4.25 million US, making him just the 28th highest paid NHL defenceman this season.
Burke could still move him if the right deal comes along. He is one of Burke’s best bargaining chips in the months leading to the trade deadline.
In the meantime, as the longest active serving member of the Leafs, he’s a candidate for the vacant captaincy position, the consummate quiet leader.
“It would mean a lot,” Kaberle said. “There would be a lot of pressure. At the same time I would take a lot of pride in it.”
He’ll never hit like Horton or capture the imagination of this city like Salming. But, after those two legendary Leafs, Kaberle might very well be on his way to becoming the third best defenceman in franchise history.
“This team has such a long history,” Kaberle said. “You see it on the walls of the dressing room, you see the names of the guys who started 60, 70 years back.
“It would be nice one day to be up there too.”