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What is likely to be the Toronto Maple Leafs' top defence pairing sits astride the fault line that runs across the new National Hockey League landscape.

Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe face opposing pressures under the new rules, pressures that could either propel the Leafs to a respectable season or crumble their foundations.

McCabe will have to adjust on the defensive side of the hockey ledger, as two of his favourite moves are distinctly out of favour in the new, offensive-minded NHL.

It is highly unlikely McCabe will be able to employ "the can opener," a move taught by coaches for generations whereby a defenceman jams his stick between an opponent's legs and catapults him out of the way. The referees may also have a jaundiced view of McCabe's favourite bodycheck, in which he bends over and uses his posterior to drive an opponent into the boards.

Kaberle faces not so much an adjustment as an opportunity. He will have more room than ever to use the offensive skills that put him into the Toronto lineup as a 20-year-old rookie in 1998, skills that have tantalizingly waxed and waned for the club over the past seven years.

The early results were rather discouraging for McCabe, although he remains optimistic. Kaberle will get his first chance to test the new waters tonight in Hamilton against the Boston Bruins.

In the Leafs' first exhibition outing on Sunday, a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, McCabe did get to apply his butt-first check on an opponent who was carrying the puck. He managed to stay out of the penalty box, but was on the ice for more than one of the Senators' goals.

"It's going to be more positional play and more using your brain than using your body," McCabe said, adding he expects his rear end will still make contact with plenty of front ends this season. "You're still allowed to do that. It's just a matter of finding a place to do it. You can't run all over trying to find those hits. I'll still be looking for it."

What's encouraging for the Leafs is that Kaberle was one of the few players who thrived during last season's NHL lockout. He spent the year starring for Kladno in the Czech Republic league and helped his country win the world championship last May. Kaberle was the runner-up to Jaromir Jagr for the country's player of the year award.

Playing on the big international ice and where two-line passes were allowed, as they will be in the NHL, Kaberle ran up 39 points in 49 games for Kladno. At the world championship in Austria, he was one of his country's best defencemen and stood out in the gold-medal game win over Canada.

Kaberle said playing that much and at that level not only kept him in fighting trim during the lockout, it gave him the confidence he can raise his offensive game in North America.

"I got to play for my home team again and see what it feels like to win something," he said. "It was huge. We had a great bunch of guys over there and we stayed with the program. It was a long season, the kind of a season like here, so I don't think I lost on the physical part and the mental part helped me."

The most noticeable difference in Kaberle's game at this year's training camp is his shooting. For years, head coach Pat Quinn has asked Kaberle to shoot more -- and it looks as if the request is getting through.

"A little bit," Kaberle admitted. "When I see someone open in better position than I am, I will still try to pass. But sometimes it's better for a shot on net from the point than a bad pass. That's what I'm trying more."

Kaberle's passing ability will still be needed deep in the Leafs' zone to move the puck quickly up the ice. He will also have to get to pucks quickly in the corners, now that goaltenders can only handle the puck behind the net.

"You will have to make sure you move your feet and try to play the puck as soon as possible," Kaberle said. "You don't want to be too long on the defensive side. If you stand around, you will get hit. So you have to use your partner, whatever is the quickest play up the ice."

dshoalts@globeandmail.ca

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