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December 15, 2011
Zamboni Tracks
Carry Me Now, Or Carry Me Later

by Ryan Wagman

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Carolina Hurricanes

Traded D Tomas Kaberle to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for D Jaroslav Spacek (December 9, 2011)

Only five months and four days earlier, the Hurricanes proudly inked Kaberle to a three-year deal (marginally backloaded) with a cap hit of $4.25 million. The four-time All Star played in 29 of the Canes' first 30 games, contributing nine assists with a minus-12. The advanced stats were also middling on the Czech veteran blueliner. A GVT of -2.2 was the worst among all Carolina position players and placed him dead last among all NHL blueliners. Actually, that mark, as of December 5, was the lowest among all position players in the league, just claiming the dishonor from Winnipeg goon Chris Thorburn. His -0.9 Defensive GVT was also ranked as the worst among all position players in the NHL.

It is not publically known whether Carolina GM Jim Rutherford is a proponent of so-called "Hockeynomics", but he clearly recognized Kaberle's poor play when, in an interview on XM radio, he stated that, "Tomas Kaberle better pick up his game or he won't be in Carolina long." And to the eternal credit of the long-time Maple Leaf, Kaberle did pick up his play. In back-to-back games in Alberta, the 33-year old nearly doubled his seasonal point total. He had five helpers prior to the first match, and recorded a pair in each game as his team exploded for 11 goals across the two games.*

*Incredibly, they somehow managed to lose the first of the pair, falling in Calgary by the preposterous score of 7-6.

Before the Hurricanes were able to complete their tour of the Canadian Prairies, Kaberle was gone, and his contract and medium-range commitment had left with him, to be carried through fruition by the Montreal Canadiens. Jay Harrison, despite being his frequent even strength partner, has somehow largely evaded the wrath of the advanced measurements, currently sitting second on the Hurricanes for GVT among blueliners, his 1.9 GVT falling just short of Tim Gleason's 2.2 GVT, a strong indication of the weakness of his former partner's play. Assuming new coach Kirk Muller does not want to disrupt his other defensive pairings, newcomer Jaroslav Spacek may simply take the place of his departed fellow Czech, gobbling up over 19 minutes of ice time in his Carolina debut certainly helped lead to that impression. He even followed Kaberle's lead in picking up a pair of helpers, earning assists on both Carolina goals, as they lost in Winnipeg, 4-2. Chances are, however, that Spacek will not fully take over the time spent by Kaberle manning the point on the power play. Looking at the past two full seasons, he has ranked among the top ten blueliners with at least 70 games played in time on ice on 5-on-4 situations. If we lower the bar to a minimum of 50 games played in 2008-09 (Kaberle missed nearly 30 games to injury), he finished in the top ten in that season as well. He is only 23rd as of this writing, trailing former teammate Joni Pitkanen, who was also in the top-ten leaguewide for the past two seasons.

Of course, it would not be safe to assume that Muller has no interest in disrupting his inherited lineup. For one, a midseason coaching change did not occur because the team was performing well. The Hurricanes are now last in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the NHL with 22 points in 31 games. That last figure is also notable as most of their competition for the draft lottery has only played 27-29 games, giving the Hurricanes a head start on the draft's pole position. Their goal differential of -29 is dead last in the NHL. Their power play, so centered on the fearsome duo of Kaberle and Pitkanen, sits 25th league-wide, with a 13.1% success rate. The penalty kill was also mediocre (26th, 78.7%) but Kaberle rarely featured there. Spacek, on the other hand, already familiar with Kirk Muller from their two years together in Montreal (Spacek joined the Habs for the 2009-10 season, while Muller was entering his fourth year as an assistant to head coach Jacques Martin), has more recent experience in killing penalties. He has averaged close to two minutes per game on the penalty kill for Montreal this season.

As much as the 37-year-old Spacek changes the dynamic on the Hurricane's blue line, this deal was as much about Jim Rutherford cutting his losses from what has thus far been a disastrous signing and pushing forward the window for some of his young rearguard prospects to step up and earn a regular spot. He admitted as much in the local News Observer, claiming, "He has not done as well as expected, just as the team has not done as well as expected… But to have flexibility next year without his contract is important for us." Jamie McBain had a solid rookie season last year and Justin Faulk, still over 16 months away from legally being able to buy a beer in Raleigh, has had his moments this year. Looking back at Corey Pronman's Top 10 Hurricanes Prospects list, Faulk (#4) was joined by Ryan Murphy (#1), Brian Dumoulin (#5), and Danny Biega (#10), with Michal Jordan, Mark Alt, and Bobby Sanguinetti also receiving notice among defensemen. While Kaberle was slated to patrol the blue line for Carolina until after the 2013-14 season, Spacek will vacate his locker no later than next summer. Until then, expect to see increased minutes for Faulk and more significant time on the point for the promising Jamie McBain.

Montreal Canadiens

Traded D Jaroslav Spacek to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for D Tomas Kaberle (December 9, 2011)

It is not often that a trade is so soundly panned before any of the players involved have been fitted for their new jerseys. This may be one such deal. The wide derision of the swap has nothing to do with the value of the jettisoned Spacek to the Habs. An expiring contract who had missed 17 of Montreal's first 29 games, his contribution to his former team this year could safely be described as innocuous. Aged and injury-prone, the three-time Olympian also missed over 20 games to injury last season and had been receiving no more than third-pairing minutes this season. Like Carolina (though not nearly as bad), Montreal has been struggling this season. They sit ninth in the Eastern Conference, tied on points with Washington, but with a lesser goal differential (-3 vs. -1) and having played two additional games. Although the Canadiens have been above-average in even strength play (1.17 goals scored for every goal allowed, seventh in the NHL), and their penalty killing has been superb (89.3%, trailing only New Jersey), their fortunes have been dragged down by a miserable power play, currently 28th in the league at 11.8%.

Much of that blame can be traced directly to poor production from their blueliners:

• Andrei Markov has yet to return from his ongoing knee woes, and his absence could not be rectified with the available talent. His latest procedure, arthroscopic surgery performed on December 5, will keep him out at least until mid-January.

• Chris Campoli was signed midway through training camp, with the idea that he could pick up minutes on the second power play unit. Still getting used to a new system, Campoli went down with a severe hamstring injury in his first regular season game. He was slated to return this week, but his role is still undefined.

• High hopes were placed in the maturation of PK Subban as an offensive force from the point. He scored nine power play goals last season and the same or more was expected this season. In 30 games, Subban has scored only one goal, and that an even strength marker. He had been supplanted as the team's biggest threat from the point by…

• Yannick Weber. He opened the season looking at a position change up to the wing, but the blueline injuries have forced him back to point, where he has played nearly three and half minutes per 60 on the point. All three of his goals have been power play markers, tying him for the team lead with forwards Tomas Plekanec and Erik Cole.

Tomas Kaberle, for all the ire he draws from his on-ice production, his seeming fear of shooting the puck from the point*, is a solid contributor from the point. Like Spacek, the newest Canadien is a three-time Olympian. He is skilled at moving the puck, if not towards the opposing net, at least to a position more suitable for getting the puck netward down the line. Also like Spacek, Kaberle debuted with a bang for Les Habitants, picking up two assists, one from the power play, in his first Montreal game, a 2-1 victory in New Jersey.

*It is only seeming, as his actual total of shots taken from the point has been fairly commensurate with the time he has spent there. He has truly been shot-averse this season, firing only 19 point shots in 30 games while playing over 112 combined power play minutes. In any case, when he does shoot, it is not a feared shot, used more to help create scoring chances than to actually score. To wit, he has not scored a power play goal since the 2009-10 season with Toronto.

In spite of his generally poor play since leaving Toronto, Kaberle is an above-average defenseman. He produced 7.6 GVT in 58 games for Toronto last season before being shipped to Boston (after years of multiple Maple Leafs General Managers imploring him to waive his no-trade clause). For the Bruins, he added 1.7 GVT over 24 games, a reduced rate of production, but still good to have. While his play was widely criticized during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup, Kaberle did not miss a game and his 11 assists tied for the team lead with David Krejci (although Krejci also scored 12 goals, while Kaberle scored none). At 33 years of age, Kaberle is obviously an asset in decline, but his current level of play is below what should be expected going forward. Regression in this case is almost a guarantee.

That said, Montreal is taking a severe risk in making this trade. Kaberle will turn 36 when his contract runs out. If he cannot revert to his stretch drive play with Boston (if not his prime play with Toronto), his contract will be impossible to move without taking an equally poisonous asset in return. With his hefty cap hit in place for two more seasons after this one, this trade will turn out to be a disaster if Montreal cannot make the playoffs at least twice. And if the Habs fail this season, Kaberle proves a bust and Markov returns to the ice to begin his three-year $15.75 million contract at anything less than full strength, expect their high profile GM position to be up for grabs before next year's first year player draft.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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