The Maple Leafs are in the process of welcoming back two significant defencemen: Ian White from injury and Pavel Kubina from the hockey purgatory of self-doubt.
White will likely be in uniform tonight, his separated shoulder healed enough over the last three weeks that he’ll be able to employ his puck moving skills at Carolina. Like Tobacco Road’s chief export, his recovery was cut and dried.
Kubina’s return to form, an on-going process, is more vague; more mental than medicinal.
Kubina was once a stud defenceman on the Tampa blue line, at least he was that during the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship, who cashed in on that notoriety with a whopping $20 million (all figures U.S.) contract to play for the Leafs for four years. At the age of 29, he had the world by the Bolts.
But Kubina arrived in Toronto where expectations, heightened by that monster contract, didn’t match the opportunities. The Leafs already had two defensive horses in Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe eating up almost 30 minutes a game each and starting every power play.
Kubina was suddenly making more but was relied upon less, all while he was putting pressure on himself to justify his $5 million per. A knee injury – combined with a suspension and birth of a daughter in the Czech Republic – limited him to three games through mid-November.
That only ramped up his desire to prove his value.
“It was a big adjustment for me,” Kubina said yesterday. “In Tampa I was out in key situations all the time. When I got here, and injury didn’t help, I started with pretty low minutes,” he recalled.
“I started putting a lot of pressure on myself. It’s better to play a simple game but sometimes I tried to do too much out there. It’s hard. There’s lots of pressure. This is Toronto. Everything is about hockey. But I also like that. The pressure pushes me to play better.”
It’s hockey’s chicken-and-egg question, what comes first, the additional playing time or the improved play? But, by any measure – including ice time that’s jumped from 17 minutes a night to the 22- or 23-minute range – Kubina’s play has been better the last few weeks. A two-goal, three-point performance against Montreal on Saturday only served to draw further attention to that fact and, in his own mind, validate his standing on the team.
“I’ve seen it now, three or four times,” said coach Paul Maurice. “A defenceman is coming off a really good year offensively or he’s hitting the free-agent market at the right time and gets a big ticket. If he’s a good man and he’s a hard working guy, he feels like he’s got to earn it every shift. For him, and for most players, points seem to be how they think they’re earning their keep. He will eventually get away from that and that will make him even better.”
What Maurice wants out of Kubina and what Leafs fans are starting to see more consistently is the pre-lockout defenceman, the player Maurice remembers strategizing to keep his top line away from when he was coaching in Carolina.
“He was the defenceman we were always trying to avoid. He was physical but he could move the puck. That’s what we’re hoping to get him back to,” said the coach.
It’s starting to come. One of the reasons is the process of fully recovering from a knee injury takes time and another, and this can’t be underestimated, is that Kubina now often pairs with countryman Kaberle.
Maurice broke up the longstanding pairing of McCabe and Kaberle around Christmas – “We weren’t playing very good defensive hockey at the time,” said the coach – and partnered the two Czech mates.
“I’ve known (Kaberle) for a long time, 13 or 14 years now. It always helps when you know a guy so well and you know what he’s gong to do out there,” said Kubina. “He’s so patient with the puck, one of the best passers in the league. He doesn’t panic with the puck. I think that helps my game.”