The Toronto Maple Leafs ventured into this offseason with two glaring holes on the roster, or so we are told.
The first issue that the Leafs need to address is goaltending. I personally do not think so, but that is a topic for a whole other article that I will start on immediately after I finish this one.
The second issue facing the Leafs is the need for a No. 1 center.
Here is the problem when talking about No. 1 centers. When you think of one, you think of Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and so on. These players are all elite and would be nice to have, but the Leafs are not a contender. Getzlaf, Crosby and Datsyuk all have won Stanley Cups and play for contenders.
The Leafs are not a contender and in my opinion not a playoff team either. The playoff part can be argued both ways for sure.
My point is, if the Leafs are willing to try a left winger at center in James van Riemsdyk, why not try a natural center at center in Nazem Kadri. Before you start with the fact that he hasn't cracked the lineup yet and that he might be a bust, let me tell you this.
Nazem Kadri has been playing for Dallas Eakins for two seasons now. In the beginning, Eakins did talk about Kadri's short comings. He talked about defensive awareness, positioning and turnovers.
Kadri has spent the last two years addressing those concerns.
Mike Brophy of Sportsnet recently talked with Kadri regarding this upcoming season and the things he is doing to get ready and what his role might be on the team.
He alludes to "Kadri making huge strides toward becoming more than just a one-way threat over the past two seasons under the watchful eye of Dallas Eakins, coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies."
According to Brophy, "Kadri is taking things to the next level this summer training under fitness guru Gary Roberts..."
Brophy goes on to say:
Roberts only works with the most dedicated athletes so that in itself is a good indication of Kadri’s determination to take his game to the next level. For Kadri, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, his mission is to get leaner, turning fat into muscle, and to become more explosive.
"Honest to God, I think in terms of what I am supposed to do on the ice, it’s all taken care of," Kadri said. "I know my role and what I am supposed to do when I am on the ice. It’s the off-ice routine that I am really focusing on. I am dedicating myself in terms of having a strict meal plan and working on explosive legs lifts so that my first couple of strides can separate me from everyone else. I’m already a pretty quick and elusive hockey player so once I get that explosiveness; it’s going to be dangerous."
One of the most eye opening statements in Mike Brophy's article was:
In fact, Kadri was one of the Marlies best players in the playoffs this past season right up until he separated his shoulder, causing him to miss the championship series which was won by Norfolk in four games.
Brophy then asks Kadri about his shoulder injury and alludes to Kadri's energetic style and the fact that even though Kadri won't help the Leafs get bigger or tougher, he does not shy away from the rough stuff.
"I went to hit somebody and he was a lot bigger than me," Kadri recalled. "I tried to run him over and caught the wrong end of him. My shoulder slipped off and I ended up separating it. It wasn't fun."
Kadri then spoke to the direction of the organization:
"By the same token I have a lot to prove. I know deep down inside – and I don’t know if anybody else believes this – but I believe I can be one of those top centers for a team. It may take a little bit of time, but I think I definitely have the potential to be that and more. Right now it lies in my hands. I’m doing everything I can to work hard and make that next step to make me an explosive player. I think the reason I’m not talked about in that scenario is because of how young I am. They say the middle of the ice is a little difficult to play when you are this young. I am a natural centre at heart and I see myself making that transition back with no problem."
When asked about Kadri during the spring, Eakins said people tend to be impatient with young players.
"Especially when you are the team’s first round pick, everyone is in a massive hurry," Eakins told sportsnet.ca. "People say, ‘Put him in now! Put him in now! Put him in now!’ We want to put him in when he’s ready. He has high-end NHL skill, for sure. His hands and his eyes -- the way he sees the ice -- are right up there with the best. You can’t teach that stuff. This isn’t NHL skill; it’s the high end of the NHL skill. He’s 21, but he’s in an 18-year-old’s body and he needs to get stronger and faster."
"Kadri has become much more of a complete player," Leafs GM Brian Burke said following the season.
Brophy went on to say:
"Kadri is working his tail off so that when the NHL season starts up, he’ll be a fixture with the Maple Leafs. Many of the first rounders from the 2009 draft are entrenched as NHL regulars now, but Kadri insisted he’s not worried about being left behind."
"That’s really one of the things that I don’t have a say on," he said. "I really have no choice other than to be patient. I’m taking it stride by stride and I know the end result is going to be something very powerful. I’m getting better and stronger every single day. Honestly, when I grow into my body and I’m fully grown I believe I’m going to be a pretty good hockey player. You’ve got to stay patient and that’s one of the main things I keep telling myself. I thought I could have stepped in my first year, but you don’t want to rush it."
After reading Brophy's article I started understanding a lot more of what Brian Burke's plan is in regards to Kadri.
The two years of AHL time with one of the best coaches in that league was definitely not wasted time, although some Leafs fans would argue otherwise.
Every hockey player develops at different stages. Kadri is taking a longer road, but one that may lead him to center the top line of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He has the hockey IQ, he definitely has the hands and now he has the defensive aspect of the game too.
Some refer to his size, but there are many centers that are 6'0" and under that have made good contributions at the NHL level.
At the end of the day, the Leafs are not a contender or a lock to make the playoffs. So why not let Kadri be what he was drafted to be? I think he would accumulate the same, if not more points than Tyler Bozak as the pivot on the top line.
What is the worse-case scenario? Kadri scores 50-60 points and proves he is not a No. 1, but he becomes a trade chip for a team looking for depth and scoring on the second and third lines.
This is a win-win for the Leafs.
He either excels and proves his skill (win), or proves he is a capable NHLer that the Leafs could package (win).
What say you Leaf fans?