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Why Tomas Kaberle Doesn't Suck As Much As You Think

Tomas Kaberle shooting the puck, in practice.  Tomas, why bother practicing skills you're not actually going to use in the game?
Tomas Kaberle shooting the puck, in practice. Tomas, why bother practicing skills you're not actually going to use in the game?

To say that Tomas Kaberle has been a lightning rod for criticism in this postseason run is akin to commenting on the wetness of water.  And it doesn't take a genius to see why; he's made some glaring errors (see game 1 against both Montreal and Tampa Bay), the power play that he was supposed to kick into overdrive, remains stuck in first gear (if not neutral), and he won't shoot the puck with anything less than a .357 Magnum pointed at his head. 

The Bruins gave up their best minor league prospect, a first and a second round draft pick for Kaberle, and at this point, no one in their right mind would say that the B's got a solid return on their investment.  Hell, if the Bruins wanted a defenseman who could pass, make mistakes in his own zone and be a target for malcontents, they could have reacquired Dennis Wideman for a whole lot less. 

I am here to tell you that Tomas Kaberle has played a whole lot better than he's been given credit for.  And if Claude Julien is wise, he'll start giving him more playing time.

Kaberle fails the "eye test" so miserably that it's not hard to understand why he's getting just 16:24 in ice time per game in the playoffs, fifth among Bruin defensemen.  The power play stinks, he's made numerous high profile misplays and turnovers, and he almost never does anything visibly positive to make up for it.  Adam McQuaid or Johnny Boychuk might make a bad play or six, but you'll also see them freight train an opposing forward.  Andrew Ference has a well-timed middle finger and a series-winning assist to fall back on.  If Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg get beaten, they can at least take solace in the fact that they were beaten by the best the other guys have.  What's Kaberle got to show for his first playoffs since 2004?

I was firmly ensconced on the "Kaberle Sucks" bandwagon until alert SCoC reader TomServo42 pointed out something mind-boggling to me: by most statistical measurements, Kaberle has been Boston's second best defenseman in the playoffs.

Let's look at simple hockey stats first: Kaberle sports a +7 rating, 7th on the team overall, and 3rd among defensemen, behind only the top pair.  Not bad.  His 8 points are 8th on the team, and most among defensemen.  Here's another number worth considering: 4 PIM.  Kaberle has spent just four minutes in the box this postseason.  Only McQuaid has been better at avoiding the sin bin among defensemen.  Some people look at low PIM totals and say that a player lacks grit.  I say that the best way to avoid opposing power play goals is not to take penalties. 

Advanced statistics from our friends at Behind the Net augment those observations.  If we're looking at 5 on 5 stats, Kaberle's points per 60 minutes are by far the highest of any defenseman, which shouldn't be a huge shock, considering he leads in points with pretty low ice time.  Per 60 minutes, the Bruins are a +1.56 with Kaberle on the ice, and a +0.93 without him.  So, over 60 minutes, the Bruins are 0.63 goals better with Kaberle on the ice than with him off it.  Only Chara (+0.64) and McQuaid (+0.65) have a better difference between on ice and off ice numbers. 

Ah, but he's been playing third pair much of the playoffs, right?  Surely he's putting up those numbers against weaker opponents.  Well, no.  Kaberle's relative quality of competition (i.e. how good are the guys he's playing against?) is the highest of any Bruin defenseman, assuming you're willing to ignore Shane Hnidy's playoff cameo. If anything, you'd expect opposing teams to try and send out their top lines against any Bruin defenseman under 6'9. 

What about the power play?  Well, arguing about the Bruins' best power play defenseman is akin to two bald men arguing over a comb.  Be that as it may, the Bruins are scoring 3.40 goals per 60 minutes on the power play with Kaberle on the ice.  Only Seidenberg (3.23) is close.  It's a sad state of affairs that he's behind no less than five Vancouver defensemen in that department, but there's nothing that can be done about that now. 

So, why the dichotomy between the numbers and the eye test?  As I said, Kaberle hasn't had a lot of moments that stick out positively, but you can easily pinpoint the negatives.  His strengths, defensively, have been sound positional play, and the ability to get the puck out of the defensive zone, neither of which are given to memorable moments.  Unfortunately, when a defenseman handles the puck out of his zone as much as Kaberle does, mistakes will happen.  He doesn't hit much, and when he does, the plexiglass vibrates as if a mosquito landed on it.  That's why it's important to look at the numbers.  If a team is consistently scoring more when a player is on the ice than when he's not, he's probably doing something right, no matter what your eyes are telling you.

For a player whose eye test and metrics measure up nicely, check out Johnny Boychuk, who was a 6'2, 225 pound millstone around Boston's neck in the Conference Finals, and whose inability to beat Ryan Kesler for the puck led to the game-winning goal last night.  Through the playoffs, the Bruins are more than a goal better per 60 minutes when Boychuk is sitting on the bench (+0.37 on ice vs. +1.46 off ice).  The fact that Boychuk has the third most ice time of any Bruin, and is averaging 5 minutes more of ice time per game than Kaberle is an act bordering on coaching negligence. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Kaberle trade has worked wonders.  But despite popular opinion, Kaberle has been one of the guys who helped get Boston to this point.