Filip Kuba might just be the perfect partner for Erik Karlsson on the Ottawa Senators blueline.
The high-flying, high-scoring 21-year-old Karlsson loves to take risks, while the veteran Kuba is content to stand back and act as a safety net in case the gamble doesn't pan out.
Karlsson's choices have mostly paid off, as his 76 points (19 goals, 57 assists) illustrate, but Senators coach Paul MacLean says much of that success can be attributed to Kuba's consistent play.
“I think Filip has been outstanding for us,” MacLean said recently. “Without the play of Filip Kuba I don't think Erik Karlsson develops into the type of player that he is. He's a partner for Erik that gives him a bit of safety and a real dependable guy that he knows will help him out and can take care of things if Erik's not around.”
This season is in complete contrast to the 2010-11 campaign when Kuba struggled right from the opening day of training camp when he broke his leg.
Kuba, who also dealt with a nagging back injury, missed the first 16 games of the season and was never able to find his stride.
He finished the season with just two goals and 14 assists, was ranked 885th out of 891 players with a minus-26 rating, and had a US$3.7 million cap hit that had fans screaming for a trade.
“It wasn't fun when you come to the rink and you get injured and then you don't play the way you think you can,” Kuba said. “It was a struggle.”
The 35-year-old's resurgence this season mirrors that of the Senators. Picked but many experts to finish last in the 30-team league, Ottawa sat in seventh in Eastern Conference with 88 points heading into Friday's games.
The team has two critical matchups this weekend with visits to Philadelphia on Saturday and the New York Islanders on Sunday.
With five games remaining, Kuba has 31 points (6-25) and is a plus-29, ranking him fourth overall in the NHL heading into Friday.
“Having known Filip before when he played in Minnesota I knew he was a good player, a real good defender and a big body that could make plays and could add some offence,” MacLean said. “I think my feeling of him coming here was that he was going to be a good player for me and he's done nothing to disappoint me at this point.”
While Kuba's numbers don't reflect his offensive abilities, the Senators believe his talent is often overlooked due to the shadow cast by Karlsson's rising star status.
“Obviously people overlook Kuba's abilities because he's playing with Erik, who is the league's most offensive defenceman, but at the same time you can see he has that instinct and will jump in once in a while,” said veteran Ottawa defenceman Sergei Gonchar. “He's there for us, but he's not shining as bright as Erik and I think that's why he's not being recognized.”
Gonchar says he has been impressed by how well Kuba and Karlsson have played together, especially considering they've only been paired together since the start of the season.
“Since Kuba's an offensive guy it's easier for him to read because he understands what's going on and he understands Erik very well,” Gonchar said. “When he knows that Erik will go he'll stay back and once in a while when he sees Erik's not going then he jumps in. It's one of those things that can only happen when you have an understanding of your partner and an understanding of the game.”
An unrestricted free agent July 1 who will no doubt be looking for a raise, Kuba has no problem allowing Karlsson have the spotlight. Quiet and reserved, Kuba prefers coming to the rink, playing his game and returning home to his family. He'll let his young partner deal with all the cameras and media attention that comes with career numbers.
“It's a lot of fun playing with him,” Kuba said. “He's obviously a player with a lot of talent, skating ability, shooting the puck, moving the puck, he's got it all. He's a fun guy to play with and the whole year has been, too.”
As for missing out on some offensive opportunities, Kuba's not overly concerned.
“I'm not trying to play that way, it just develops that way from the play on the ice, from the actual hockey game. Sometimes even if I wanted to jump up (Karlsson's) already there so I just stay back,” he said. “I don't think about it all the time, that's just how it is. He can take the puck in our zone in the corner and skate it up through the whole rink and create a scoring chance, that's just the way he plays.”