Since the turn of the new millenium, Leaf fans have grown accustomed to seeing a late twenties' Bryan McCabe take charge of what was predominantly a veteran laden defense core. We'd often see him bellowing out orders from the bench, sticking up for his teammates even when it probably wasn't in his best interest to do so (getting ragdolled by Chara comes to mind), or displaying an unmatched passion and heart unmatched by any other Leaf blueliner. On the scoresheet, he was Toronto's lone all-star defenseman not named Kaberle in recent memory, a 25 minute a night workhorse, and the all-time leader in PP goals among Leaf defensemen. Since the lockout, the Leafs have gone a dismal 11-22-4 without Bryan.
Now he's packed his bags and made the move down to sunny Florida.
Suddenly, questions start to arise:
Who will fill that large gap of minutes left behind?
Who will step up and face the media after a tough loss and tell them what went wrong?
Who will take the next generation of Leaf blueliners under his wing, and tell them what it means to don the blue and white; what it takes to play under the pressures of hockey's largest fanbase; and what it feels like to have that same fanbase put you on their shoulders and elevate you to near deity-like status when you are successful.
While it seems that the torch may one day be handed down to Luke Schenn, it seems that a temporary predecessor is emerging, and his name is Pavel Kubina.
After a sub-par first season as a Maple Leaf, stepped up big-time in his second season. In McCabe's absence, the first time in 8 years in a Leaf uniform that Bryan missed significant time, Pavel excelled:
11 goals (19th among NHL D-men); 40 points (19th among NHL D-men); 116 PIM's (7th among NHL D-men); 23:55 TOI (24th among NHL D-men); 121 Hits (41st among NHL D-men); 166 Blocked Shots (8th among NHL D-men); 34 Takeaways (29th among NHL D-men).
Kubina's resurgence drew plenty of interest from clubs at the NHL deadline, including San Jose, and Ron Wilson joked earlier in the offseason that if they had managed to land Pavel at the deadline, he may not be the Leaf coach today.
Kubina played spectacularly well down the stretch, posting 12 points in his final 15 games, and practically singlehandedly kept the Leafs playoff hopes alive with key game winning goals against Philly and Florida.
So far this season, Pavel is starting to realize what kind of role he needs to take on with this young team. He seems much more vocal and involved in the team aspect, and is already facing the media a lot more. He's setting an example on the ice, with a key goal, physical play and a ridiculous 7 blocked shot game the other night.
While we'd love to see Kaberle take on such a role, it just doesn't seem to reflect in his personality or somewhat one-dimensional style of play. Perhaps this is what urged Fletcher to keep Kubina past his open trade window this summer, and name him one of the team's alternate captains.
Thus for the foreseeable future (until the trade deadline perhaps?), we're beginning to see Pavel take the next step and going from simply being a talented hockey player to becoming a much needed role model and mentor for the likes of Schenn, Colaiacovo, and Stralman, all of whom are being counted upon to be the backbone of a championship calibre defense further down the road.
Always a pleasure,
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