After years of scrutiny, Pavel Kubina has silenced critics and developed into an All-Star defenseman.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published March 27, 2004
TAMPA - For someone with such a big slap shot, it was interesting to hear Pavel Kubina say it is not the best way for him to score goals.
It was even more interesting to see him demonstrate his preferred technique.
Standing outside the Lightning locker room at the St. Pete Times Forum, the defenseman used exaggerated hand motions to show off his stick-handling skills. And his little hop, skip and jump highlighted the footwork that has found him passage from the blue line to the net.
"I like sneaking in," Kubina said. "I always wanted to be a forward, but they kept putting me on defense."
Kubina, laughed, clearly enjoying the moment as much as his best NHL season. His 17 goals lead the league's defensemen and are a Tampa Bay blue-line record. He has made so much progress defensively, coach John Tortorella said Kubina is a top-four defenseman.
"You see the rise in him and there's more there," Tortorella said. "He's still a young man in this game. It's been interesting to watch how he's grown."
"I was learning," Kubina said. "I got older, smarter, more confident. Right now, I just want to play and enjoy the ride."
It has been quite a ride for Kubina.
Former general manager Phil Esposito said Friday he insisted Kubina be drafted in 1996 because of two big checks he saw Kubina throw for the Czech Republic in that year's World Junior Championships.
Taken in the seventh round (179th overall), Kubina improved his stats every season for the Lightning from 1997-98 through 2001-02, when his 11 goals and 34 points, not to mention a new $4.75-million contract, created great expectations.
Kubina admitted he felt that pressure, and last season's three goals and 22 points were his lowest totals since 1998-99. Kubina was booed at home, and Tortorella and associate coach Craig Ramsay were on his case. It seems so long ago.
"He's a guy that we've kicked hard, and the area has kicked him hard," Tortorella said. "You never know when a young player is going to mature in that type of position. I have seen such a change in how he handles the coaching and handles certain pressures that are put on him. But the biggest change I've seen is how he stays within himself."
Kubina, 26, has a career-high 35 points, and at plus-12 will be a plus player for the first time in his career. He is second on the team with an average 21:13 of ice time.
He played in his first All-Star Game. His defensive positioning also improved, and he learned to stay on his feet rather than drop to the ice to make a play which, invariably, took him out of position.
But Kubina's greatest joy is scoring goals. You saw it in the big Tiger Woods-like fist pump he used to celebrate his 17th during Thursday's 2-1 victory over the Devils. You can hear it in his voice.
"When they go in," he said, "I'm happy."
Kubina was happy to try anything new this season to generate more offense. So he worked with Ramsay after practice on his wrist shot and one-timer. Encouraged by a system that wants defensemen to cheat into the offensive zone, Kubina went to the net, and started scoring.
"I'm trying different things," Kubina said. "Sometimes I end up in front of the net. I've been getting a lot of great passes and the forwards are looking for me too. And this year they're going in."
There was that 19-game stretch from Dec.13 to Jan.19 in which Kubina had zero points. No biggie.
"Two years ago if he wasn't scoring, it affected his defense," Tortorella said. "This year it never affected his defensive play. In fact, his defensive play was probably even better. That is a sign of maturity."
"If you go out there and think you have to score a goal or get some points, it's not going to happen," Kubina said. "You've just got to go out there and play your game. You can't put that pressure on yourself.
"It's about winning. If I have some goals and we lose, it's no fun."