The biggest story in this year’s training camp has been the performance of Jake Gardiner. Per Dave Shoalts, Gardiner’s play has given the Leafs brass a problem they haven’t encountered in recent pre-seasons, a prospect forcing his way onto the team. “As the days go by, Gardiner is taking the accompli out of fait accompli. The 21-year-old native of Deephaven, Minn., is the best defenceman at camp. This may require some more deliberation by the Leafs’ brain trust before the start of the regular season, but no one is complaining.” His performance mirrors that of Tomas Kaberle playing his way into the Leafs’ starting line-up in the fall of 1998.
At the start of training camp in 1998 the Leafs blueline had about as much depth as the gene-pool south of the Mason-Dixon Line. According to the Star: “The Leaf depth chart, however, begins with Sylvain Cote, Dimitri Yushkevich and Jason Smith and pretty much ends there.” This was a problem for a team looking to compete for a playoff spot. “Shouldn’t an NHL team with expectations of qualifying for a playoff berth for the first time in three years have more than three experienced defencemen on hand for those expectations to be at all realistic?” (Pessimism from the Star? Some things never change) There was some concern as to where the capable NHL defenders would come from: ‘Marek Posmyk and Tomas Kaberle have promise, Kaberle in particular, but will be in St. John’s this season.” This is only time in history you will see those names together in the same sentence, that’s nice for you Marek Posmyk, you might want to cut that out and frame it. That was the state of things of September 15, 1998. The Star wondered: “So where are all the defencemen?” By the end of training camp they had their answer.
To say Tomas Kaberle was unknown before the start of the 1998-1999 season would be an under-statement. According to Rosie DiManno:
“A biography for Tomas Kaberle does not appear in "The Players" section of the glossy, new Toronto Maple Leafs media guide. Nor is he mentioned in the secondary tier of Leafs prospects, farther back in the book. And he’s not there either as we penetrate deep into the thumbnail sketches of "Players in the System." Not until page 100, the complete list of ’98-99 player personnel, does Kaberle’s name surface in print in the defenceman category. And the only other reference to the 20-year-old Czech is a couple of pages later, where he’s listed as Toronto’s 13th and second-last selection in the 1996 entry draft (204th over-all), ahead of the poignantly misnamed Jared Hope.”
While many fans had never heard of Kaberle they became extremely familiar with him during the pre-season as “Leaf head coach Pat Quinn has given Kaberle more ice time than would have been expected going into the season. In fact, Kaberle was on the ice more than any other Toronto skater while the team compiled a 3-1-1 record before arriving at Joe Louis Arena.” As many believe they are doing with Gardiner Quinn explained that "The reason we’re playing him is that he has to learn different situations. We have to bite the bullet. We have to help him through the areas that he needs to get better in, and that’s play around his own net." Those watching his play praised him for his skill, maturity, and poise with the puck. "He’s got a certain comfort level with the puck," Quinn said. "He doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions when he has the puck.”
Sounds a lot like what people are saying about Gardiner; let’s hope history can repeat itself.
- DiManno, Rosie. 1998. [Confident, young kaberle fitting right in on toronto defence]. Toronto Star, Oct 25, 1998
- Leafs need to build better case for the defence. 1998. Toronto Star, Sep 15, 1998.
- Stevens, Neil. 1998. Kaberle impresses hockey world leaf rookie from czech republic quickly adapts to NHL’s smaller rinks and style of play. The Globe and Mail, Oct 24, 1998.