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To sign Kaberle or not to sign Kaberle: A Meditation

June 19, 2011

Kaberle to remain a part of the club? 

Amidst all the fanfare of the Bruins’ showing at Fenway Park this afternoon were the exit interviews and one crucial bit of information passed along by the Bruins’ new media communications go-to man, John Bishop. That bit of information, delivered naturally by Twitter, is that is Kaberle’s “preference” to remain in Boston.

Stop the presses! This is big news. Since he was traded questions have swirled about the Boston media whether he was going to be re-signed upon the season’s end. Chiarelli, Kaberle and his agent wisely demurred after the trade, declaring that any negotiations would be discussed once the season was done with. And now it is. And there will be a ring on one of Kaberle’s finger. And the Stanley Cup will be journeying to Rakovnik this summer.

But where will Kaberle be journeying thereafter?

I, for one, think that Kaberle should remain in the black and gold. Given the cap constraints and his diminishing returns, a reasonable set of terms along the lines of $2.3 to $3 million a year for three years seems appropriate. And I think he’d be willing to agree to this, given his better prospects for success in Boston and from what we know of his personality, his desire for familiarity and stability. Boston management, what about them?

But let’s rewind here.

The rumors about the Kaberle trade intensified for days in February before the Bs embarked on their Canadian tour. Finally it went through, the Bs giving up first and second round picks and Joe Colborne for the blueliner. It was a great relief. And poor Kaberle was expected to be a miracle man that would waltz in and single-handedly resuscitate the Bruins’ already flagging power-play and improve their often tedious and muddy transition game. There were Great Expectations for Tomas. Let’s just put it that way. Short of scoring every game for his first ten games, I don’t think he had any way of meeting those expectations. And Bruins fans crave further abuse of the Leafs, so it was a recipe for disaster.

Kaberle’s evolution in Boston was gradual. From February onward, it was a matter of adjusting to the shock of playing for a wholly new team for the first time in his NHL career, transitioning to the systems of the Bruins and handling pressures that weren’t related to the Toronto media, but rather legitimate Cup contention. These three factors made the trade that much more difficult for Kaberle. And it wasn’t until the regular season was in its twilight hours that these challenges were finally acknowledged and fleshed out. There were so many questions: why wasn’t he better? Could he handle playing in Boston? Was he this damaged by the trade?

And then the playoffs began. Kaberle was becoming more comfortable by the game. His feel for Adam McQuaid, the power-play, the Bruins’ style of play, it all started to gel. Yes, he was being used as a third d-pairing. But he was quarterbacking that power-play and logging big ice-time on it. Kaberle hadn’t witnessed the post-season since the 2003-2004 season. That’s a long absence. The culture of losing in Toronto must have been all-consuming. Kaberle was in the playoffs, and possibly on the fast-track to a Cup.

It was a different scene. But he rose. And he adjusted. And he began smiling. Just his body language and his facial expressions began changing. On the ice and in post-game interviews, he started appearing to be a man comfortable in his body, and at ease with his teammates. I get the impression he is a sensitive sort of guy. After all Brian Burke said about how much the trade talk and waiving of the no-trade clause had affected his psyche, and follow that up with what his father said about it affecting Tomas too, it was clear, and this is no knock against him, that he was a fragile being. Like a new kid at school on his first day, the playground was a brutal sort of place.

But he trudged on. I have no doubt his teammates provided him with immense support and Julien, in round one, made many a remark deflecting attention away from Kaberle. This was wise, and only natural. But important. No one on the team was being absolved of responsibility, but Tomas needed some of the weight lifted off his shoulders. Success began coming more easily with Philly, and so the Bruins marched on.

When it was all said and done, his numbers for the playoffs don’t lie. 11 assists. +8.

For reference:

McQuaid: 4 assists, +8

Johnny Boychuck: 3 goals, 6 assists, +12

Zdeno Chara: 2 goals, 7 assists, +16 (1st in playoffs)

Andrew Ference: 4 goals, 6 assists, +10

Dennis Seidenberg: 1 goal, 10 assists, +12

Not too shabby for Kaberle, eh? If he proved anything, it’s that the adjustment period was REAL and that he is capable of elevating the quality of his game when it matters. His plus/minus may be low, but we didn’t trade to get him for his defensive capabilities, now did we? We got him for his playmaking and puckmoving ways. And he demonstrated his ability to do just that.

I think Kaberle should be brought back for three reasons: organizational depth at the moment, his ability to return to the quality of play seen in Toronto and simply, a lack of a better free agent and the culture of winning and veteran-qualities he brings to the table.

I think Kaberle should be brought back as I don’t believe Kampfer is reading for full-time duties just yet. That and the fact, more importantly perhaps, is that Bartkowski isn’t yet prepared to assume more than seven minutes a night. When injuries arise, which they always do, having solely Bartkowski in reserve is a risky proposition. I’d far and away prefer Kaberle be in and Kampfer as the first plug-in. I don’t think any changes are in order in the defense corps. All of the d-men (and maybe this is the rosy-colored glasses of a Cup speaking here), but I think all of them function and perform very well. The top pairing of Chara and Seidenberg may be called upon only in important or playoff situations, since it might be too heavy and neither player should have to log 30 minutes a night every night. So some distribution would be necessary. All this goes to say is that Kaberle works with the overall plan of the team. And if the Bruins draft Nathan Beaulieu on Friday night as many anticipate, this enables him to return to junior and later the AHL for further development.

As my aforementioned assessment of his progress with the Bruins shows, Kaberle, after many months, learned and adapted to Julien’s system. I think his flourishing, as well as that of Peverley and Kelly, indicate just how difficult it is. All three pre-deadline acquisitions required extended time to grow and improve on their new team. Once in the playoffs, the three were firing on all cylinders. Now that Kaberle is up-to-speed, well, his improvement will continue. To train someone new, that would take months! Literally!

And finally, 23 players (well, excepting Thornton and Recchi) are new Cup veterans. They’ve done it. Kaberle has participated in and witnessed an environment of success, pride, winning and commitment. These intangibles cannot be understated. He will be hungry to return, prove himself for a full course of action next season. He will know the ingredients of a champion. That can’t just be bought or traded for readily. He’s worth keeping. And in terms of team chemistry, it can only grow and be built upon. Unlike the Blackhawks, the Bruins will stay most intact.

And Kaberle should stay. Get him signed, get him here for good. The right price, a fresh start. He can do it.

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