Bruins couldn’t afford to take a pass on puck-moving Kaberle

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / February 25, 2011

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Call the skill what you will. Stuff, it, that, or other similarly elusive words the game’s insiders use to describe the NHL’s most sought-after commodity.

The bottom line is this: For most of 2010-11, the Bruins didn’t have it. One week ago, they got it from Toronto in Tomas Kaberle. And they’re better off for it.

“It’s given us more depth,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “It’s given us the puck-moving D. It’s given us the skill level. But it’s also made everybody around him better.’’

Like grass-fed beef in steak houses or tablet computers in the business world, puck-moving defensemen are the hottest items in hockey. They’re low in supply, high in demand, and even higher in price. Like a player at no other position, the puck-moving defenseman touches the game in the most degrees.

Because they can retrieve pucks and shuttle them out of the defensive zone, their goalies face fewer threats. A puck mover’s partner gets the first pass a second quicker, and the puck lands flat on his tape. In turn, the forwards generate speed through the neutral zone and cross the blue line at full speed, poised for pucks to turn them into scoring chances.

The Bruins were on the wrong end of such quick-strike danger earlier this month. Nicklas Lidstrom, the NHL’s best puck-moving defenseman, started the breakout behind the Detroit net. With his head up, Lidstrom spotted Darren Helm cutting through the neutral zone. Bing, went Lidstrom’s tape-to-tape pass to an in-stride Helm. Bang, went Helm’s dish to Kris Draper. Boom, went Draper’s top-shelf shot over Tim Thomas.

It looked so easy. But few players could have read the situation and executed the play with such precision.

“Lidstrom’s the best you could possibly imagine,’’ said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney, who often played beside one of the best in Ray Bourque. “He’s making the game look easy when every one of us knows it isn’t. It’s not fair. And that’s a great example. It took two passes. Even Scott Niedermayer, the best skater in the world, would never have been able to skate it to that point that quickly.’’

For two games, the Bruins have welcomed the defensive mobility they’ve been missing all season. Last Friday, the day he was traded, Kaberle traveled from Toronto to Ottawa to make his Black-and-Gold debut. Kaberle played on the second pairing with Dennis Seidenberg and quarterbacked the No. 1 power-play unit in the Bruins’ 4-2 win. On Tuesday, Kaberle played the same role in the Bruins’ 3-1 win in Calgary. Kaberle’s game centers around an elegance and subtlety that are, in contrast, loud and boldfaced in their on-ice result.

“He makes such a big impact on the rest of our D’s,’’ said David Krejci, Kaberle’s Czech Republic Olympic teammate. “Especially in the last game, they were making really, really smart decisions with the puck. I’m not saying they didn’t before. But they didn’t panic. They would hold onto it longer. They had such good patience. I guess just looking at him, they know what kind of player he is. When he’s playing with you, I guess they want to be like him. I think it was a big help. We could see it, especially in the last game. Every D basically looked like Kaberle.’’

At a premium The Bruins paid a hard-to-swallow price: 2008 first-round pick Joe Colborne, who projects to be a top-six NHL forward. Their own 2011 first-round pick. Possibly a 2012 second-round pick if Kaberle re-signs or if the Bruins advance to the Stanley Cup finals.

But the price was high because the most basic economic theory of supply and demand applies to Kaberle’s skill set. Dallas learned that earlier this week when it gave up power forward James Neal and dependable defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. Colorado had to fork over Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk, two up-and-coming players, to St. Louis for former No. 1 pick Erik Johnson.

The Red Wings have two elite puck movers in Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. As a result, Detroit’s bread and butter is puck possession. Most other teams are lucky to have just one top-notch puck mover, with some of the best including Duncan Keith, Tobias Enstrom, and Kris Letang. After wheeling Dennis Wideman last summer to Florida for Nathan Horton, the Bruins had none.

“For all of Dennis Wideman’s faults that people would boo him for on particular nights, he has that ability to do that,’’ Sweeney said of retrieving and moving pucks. “That’s stuff that teams covet.’’

Without Wideman, the Bruins didn’t have a defenseman who could turn his back, retreat for a puck, turn around, stare down the forecheck, and initiate the transition game with a good first pass. Too often, they had to consider alternate methods. They chipped pucks off walls. They went D-to-D to buy time and elude the forecheck. Their forwards had to come back deeper to aid their defensemen. In worst-case scenarios, they rimmed pucks around the boards.

The result: lack of puck possession and more scoring chances for the opposition.

“It gets exposed,’’ Sweeney explained. “Because it’s not smooth, because it’s not Point A to Point B, there’s a disconnect that starts to happen. You’re fighting it just that bit. Then your fight translates to somebody else’s fight. It’s that ability to settle things down as opposed to giving somebody else even less time. Tomas is buying somebody else more time because he’s got the calmness, which some other guys haven’t got.’’

Franchise quarterback Kaberle, Toronto’s eighth-round pick in 1996, always had that element to his game. In 1998, after completing his season with Kladno of the Czech Extraliga, Kaberle went to St. John’s, Toronto’s AHL affiliate. For two games, Kaberle’s partner was Shawn Thornton, a defenseman before he converted to forward.

“I lived with D.J. Smith, a second-round pick, a high pick, a fairly good defenseman,’’ Thornton recalled. “We talked about it when we got him. It was like, ‘Wow.’ Just the passes he was making at that age. He was always able to skate around with his head up and make the right play all the time.’’

With Toronto, Kaberle scored 83 goals with 437 assists in 878 games. For seven seasons, Kaberle teamed with Bryan McCabe to form one of the league’s elite power-play tandems. Kaberle, the puckhandling quarterback, would often man the left point. He would then slide the puck to the right point for McCabe, who would fire away with one-timers. In 2005-06, 13 of McCabe’s 19 goals came on the power play.

The Bruins hope that something similar will take place on their first unit. For too long, Zdeno Chara had to handle puckhandling point duties. But distributing the puck and skating it up and down the blue line aren’t Chara’s strengths. Chara’s most dangerous assets are his thunderous one-timer and ability to tiptoe backdoor.

For that to happen, Kaberle will assume primary point duties, which is just fine with all parties. Kaberle’s poise and calmness allow him to keep pucks in and distribute them even when penalty-killing forwards are in his face. In turn, Chara can drift down the right side, freed of most puckhandling responsibilities.

And that’s where Kaberle’s presence will also be felt. Chara will be in better position to score on the power play. Seidenberg, Kaberle’s even-strength partner for now, can be up the ice a step quicker. The forwards can play with more confidence, knowing they’ll be on the attack. The trickle down effect will be significant.

“I always call my D’s quarterbacks,’’ Julien said. “If they move the puck well, our offense is going. If they don’t, our offense loses its edge.’’

The Bruins sniffed around John-Michael Liles and Joni Pitkanen as puck-moving options. But their primary target was Kaberle, just like it was two summers ago when they nearly pried him away for Phil Kessel. Concurrently, when Kaberle was informed that an extension with Toronto was not likely, he informed GM Brian Burke that Boston would be his top destination.

“I didn’t want to be the guy to say, ‘I’m staying in Toronto no matter what,’ ’’ Kaberle said. “I felt it would be a good fit because it’s a great team from every aspect. Goaltenders, defense, and forwards are strong. At the same time, I would like to win a Cup. I felt this was a good team and good chance. I’ll do my best to fit on the team.’’

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