Kuba providing constant stability on Sens blue line
Veteran defenceman's play also allowing Karlsson to grow into more dynamic force
|Senators defenceman Filip Kuba currently carries a +29 rating, which ranks fourth in the NHL in that category and second among blueliners behind only Zdeno Chara of the Bruins (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images).
But just as importantly, his defence partner continues to prove that slow and steady are also key factors in winning the race, so to speak.
With each passing day, the dynamic Karlsson continues to garner a growing amount of support — and rightly so — as a prime contender for the James Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the National Hockey League's top defenceman. But many in the Ottawa Senators dressing room will tell you that veteran blueliner Filip Kuba is just as invaluable in his own way to the team's success.
Among a group of Senators having terrific rebound seasons, perhaps nobody's story resonates louder than Kuba's, whose current +29 rating ranks No. 4 in the NHL (he's the only player not wearing a Boston Bruins jersey among the league's top six in that category) and second among all league defencemen. It's a massive reversal from a 2010-11 campaign that saw the Czech blueliner post an ugly -26 rating that was by far the worst of his 11-year NHL career.
Last season, Kuba suffered a broken right leg during the opening practice of training camp and was forced to play catchup from Day 1, missing the first six weeks of the season. The native of Ostrava, Czech Republic, had previously seen his 2009-10 season shortened to a career-low 53 games because of back troubles.
But the 35-year-old Kuba is on track to suit up 73 times this season, the most he's played since he turned in 75 games' worth of duty for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2007-08. Ask him about his reversal in fortunes this season and Kuba will tell you it all starts with good health.
"You want to play hockey and you love to play hockey," Kuba said following Senators practice earlier today at the Bell Sensplex. "And when you're not feeling well, it's really frustrating. So just to be healthy this year is huge."
Added Karlsson: "Being healthy is the key for everything. If you get hurt, especially the way (Kuba) did the last two years here ... it's unfortunate and it takes a lot of energy away from you. This year, he's been feeling really good for the whole season and he's really shown that (with his play)."
While Karlsson's growth has been off the charts this season, Senators head coach Paul MacLean credits veterans such as the 6-4, 225-pound Kuba with providing the stabilizing influence for the young Swede "to be the player that he is" today.
"(Kuba) is a calming player," said MacLean. "He's a big body ... you can leave him back there and he can put out some fires for you when you start them. He's just been a real consistent, consistent player game in and game out and his plus-minus has (reversed itself) by almost 100 per cent from what it was last year.
It's also no surprise that Kuba's improved play mirrors that of the Senators, who missed the playoffs a year ago but are closing in on a surprising post-season berth with less than two weeks to go in the season. Ottawa (39-28-10) stands seventh in the Eastern Conference and controls its fate heading into its final five games of the season.
"A lot of it has to do with team success and the team playing well," said Karlsson. "He's really stepped up his own game this year as well, as has everybody else, I think. He's a good hockey player and he's shown that for a number of years. I think playing with him is comfortable and easygoing (for me)."
Kuba, for his part, admits he's enjoyed watching the show that Karlsson has put on this year. The 21-year-old Swede has racked up 76 points (19-57) in 76 games and is on target to become the first NHL blueliner to finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers in 1991-92.
"Every time I give the puck to Erik, his shot is so good and it looks like it's easy for him to find the lane to get it on the net," Kuba told the Team 1200. "It's amazing. He always finds a lane ... (and) I don't think he gets a lot of credit for his defensive abilities. He's a guy who skates very well and, if he makes a mistake, he always comes back hard. Not many forwards can get away from him when he's skating back after a turnover."
The pairing has been greatly beneficial to Karlsson, too.
"I like playing with him," Karlsson said of Kuba. "He's an easy player to read off and he's doing a good job in both zones, controlling the puck and making good passes all the time ... I skate a lot and I think we complement each other pretty well in certain areas. He's got certain responsibilities out there to do for me and I've got certain ones to do for him. I think the match is really good."
Around the boards
Goaltender Ben Bishop, who suffered a lower-body injury during the Senators' 8-4 triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday, might be available to return sooner than expected. "I'm feeling better. It's moving along faster than I thought," the 6-7 stopper told reporters today. "The rehab's going better so far, maybe a little bit ahead of schedule. Hopefully, I'll be back before the end of the season." Bishop also indicated he might try to start skating this weekend. "It's nothing serious, it's nothing bad, so hopefully I'll be back sooner rather than later," he said ... The Senators have inked blueliner Chris Wideman, a fourth-round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (100th overall), to a two-year entry level contract. Wideman, whose college season with the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks ended on the weekend, has reported to the Binghamton Senators and was set to make his American Hockey League debut against the Hershey Bears tonight. "I'm pretty excited," Wideman told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. "It's all happening very fast. I left school quickly and it seems like just a couple days ago, I was back with all my buddies at school and now I'm here. So we'll see what happens."