The Kaberle Question

By David Lau

Tomas Kaberle’s Contract Situation A Disaster Waiting To Happen?

He was one of the most underpaid and overworked players in the NHL last season and now Tomas Kaberle may choose to stay in Europe for 2001/2002 – that is if he can’t secure a new deal that would pay him something in excess of one million dollars per season. It is widely speculated that he is seeking a 2 year pact that would take him up arbitration eligibility after the deal expires. However, Leafs management is seemingly not willing to give him that opportunity and they would like to get Kaberle onto a long-term deal (perhaps lasting 3 or 4 years) that would effectively eliminate his first year or two of arbitration rights. Failing this, Toronto is offering the smooth Czech defender only the minimal 10 percent raise mandated by the current CBA. This arrangement would still leave Kaberle’s annual stipend just shy of $300,000 for the upcoming season.

If Kaberle chooses to stay home, maintaining a high level of conditioning and fitness will become a big concern – despite the fact that he intends to play for the Czech National Team and also in the Czech Elite League. The potential impact upon Tomas’ long-term development (bearing in mind that he is coming off a season during which he amassed 6 goals and 40 assists – leading all Leafs’ defensemen in scoring) is another serious concern. Consider similar holdouts from the past.

Fellow Maple Leaf blueliner Aki Berg held out in 1998-99 because of a contract dispute when he was still a member of the Los Angeles Kings. During the previous season, he only contributed 8 assists in 72 games with 61 PIM. Since returning to the NHL, Berg had been unable to fulfill the promise held for him (he was originally drafted 3rd overall) until the Maple Leafs acquired him at last season’s trading deadline and he finally began to show the skills that he was always said to possess. Though he has yet to have a breakthrough season, optimists say that next season will see him finally arriving as a bonafide NHL star – hopefully producing something resembling Bryan McCabe’s improved play of last season. All things considered, it can certainly be argued that Berg’s hold-out has dramatically postponed his development process.

Peter Nedved, a forward with the Pittsburgh Penguins, sat out in 1997-99 after a breakthrough season of 45 goals and 54 assists for 99 points in 80 games. Since that hold-out, Nedved has never been able to realize his full potential. Subsequently traded to the NY Rangers, Petr hasn’t been able to post numbers at the same level. His best season since 1997/98 was last season when he played in 79 games, scoring 32 goals and 46 assists for 78 points (a 21 point drop-off from his career best total).

Another risk that Tomas Kaberle will run if he fails to report to St. John’s later this month is a possible drop down on the team’s depth chart. There are fully 11 other defencemen set to report to Training Camp who are competing for work on the Leafs’ blueline. Dmitry Yushkevich, Dave Manson, Aki Berg, Cory Cross, Bryan McCabe, Anders Eriksson, Petr Svoboda, Nathan Dempsey, Karel Pilar, Wade Belak, and Christian Chartier all hold varying degrees of potential to claim one of the 7 defense spots available.

Tomas and his handlers should be very cautious in their management of this situation. Leafs fans remain hopeful that cooler heads will prevail and that a mutually satisfactory deal will get done prior to Training Camp.