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Why Nazem Kadri Needs to Play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL

Ryan FulfordContributor IIIJune 24, 2016

Why Nazem Kadri Needs to Play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL

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    Few prospects in Toronto have been as polarizing as Nazem Kadri has since he was tabbed by the Leafs in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

    On the one hand, his skill level is abundant and his flashes of brilliance provide a modicum of optimism for fans of a middling franchise.

    Alternatively, his slow ascension to the NHL ranks has led to some labeling him a "bust" after 51 career games in the NHL.

    The unrealistic expectations that have been heaped upon Kadri weren't a benefit to the former top-10 selection in a day and age where prospects are expected to make an immediate, noticeable impact. A cocksure attitude does him no favors either.

    However, whether he's liked or disliked, or viewed as a viable prospect or a bust, the fact remains the upcoming season (assuming it isn't lost due to a third lockout under Mr. Bettman's watch) is integral for Kadri's development.

    After biding his time in the AHL (and performing admirably during a shortened playoff stint this past season), while receiving the occasional big league call-up, it's time for Kadri to report for full-time duty in a Leafs jersey for a variety of reasons.

Marked All-Around Improvement

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    Although many top draft picks enter the NHL right away, Kadri has taken the more traditional route.

    After completing his junior career with the London Knights of the OHL he's bounced between the AHL and NHL, leaving many to ponder when he'll make the transition to full-time NHL duty. Although Kadri hasn't made his mark in the NHL as of yet, his time in the AHL has been well spent.

    Often criticized for his lackadaisical approach to the defensive aspects of the game, which Kadri has improved upon under Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins' watchful eye. Indeed, Eakins himself has proclaimed Kadri is "better in his own end" and that yearly improvement has been noticeable.

    This is a great sign for a player generally noted only for his offensive capabilities. While Kadri's offensive game was never in doubt, as his 81 points in 92 career AHL games will attest to, he's managed to become a contributor at the professional level when his team needs it most. Before he was felled by injury he accrued 10 points in 11 AHL playoff games with a plus-6 rating, an indication of his all-around improvement.

    However, for all the on-ice improvements perhaps the most important area in which Kadri has turned his attention to is his fitness level.

    As a slight player coming out of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, there was never a doubt that he would need to add bulk and get stronger to withstand the physical toll of the NHL game. His focus and dedication with respect to the off-ice elements which can improve his game has changed as he matures as a player.

    As my B/R colleague Neil Grewal noted, Kadri is spending this summer training with hockey player-turned-fitness guru Gary Roberts, which will only benefit him as he navigates the gauntlet that is the NHL regular season.

Development Must Not Be Curtailed

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    While spending time in the AHL generally isn't a bad thing (look at how the lockout year benefited Eric Staal and Jason Spezza as they played in the AHL), after improving problem areas Kadri is ready to make the jump to the NHL.

    As a near point-per-game player during his stints in the AHL, it's clear that Kadri is NHL-ready from a skill standpoint. From a physical standpoint, his body has started to catch up with the rest of his game which will enable him to contribute on a more frequent basis.

    With nothing left to prove at the minor league level, his mettle must be tested against the best players in the world or the risk of regression becomes a possibility. Kadri doesn't have to score at a point-per-game pace in the NHL in order to be effective, nor should he be expected to put up points at that clip. However, in order to improve he needs to learn how to effectively utilize his skills within the NHL game. And the only way to learn how to be effective in the NHL is to experience it night in and night out.

    The jump to the NHL from the AHL can be a significant one, but as a player who has improved and gotten stronger (both mentally and physically) since his days as a teenage star, Kadri is aptly prepared for the challenge. While there will be struggles at times as the pace is quicker, with passing seams closing faster and space at a premium, he'll no doubt display flashes of brilliance that remind everyone why he was the seventh overall selection in 2009.

    A roster spot won't be handed to him so it's up to Kadri to prove himself come training camp, and a strong showing could be just what he needs to make himself indispensable.

Toronto Needs an Infusion of Skill

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    The Leafs didn't lack for goal scoring last season, but keeping the puck out of their net was a problem. That said, it may seem counter-intuitive to discuss their need for a high-end offensive talent, however Kadri fits that role more than adequately.

    He won't step in and put up lofty point totals right away, but he has the type of skill set that can change the game in a hurry. It's also prudent to note that his shootout proficiency could help the Leafs steal a few points throughout the season.

    The main point about Kadri is that he's the type of creative, offensive catalyst that possesses a sizable ceiling. Players like Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin are all good in their own ways, but none of them possess the sheer about of pure skill Kadri does.

    Having Kadri in the lineup doesn't mean he has to bump someone out of the top-six, but if given enough ice time and perhaps an opportunity on the power play there is no doubt he'll create scoring opportunities.

    Kadri does have a penchant for trying to do too much on his own at times, however he's a slick forward capable of making those around him better and creating something out of nothing. All good teams have impressive depth and having Kadri in the lineup gives the Leafs an added dimension offensively and additional options as to how they spread out their skill players up front.

Showcase His Talents

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    To preface this slide, make note of the fact that it's not an assertion that the Leafs should move Kadri.

    In Toronto the gossip-mongers are always out in full force though and any speculation or rumor that the Leafs might make a significant move will more than likely include Kadri. It's an inevitably that is unavoidable in the Toronto hockey market.

    If the Leafs were indeed looking to make a significant move however, it is highly likely that Kadri's name would be included in any discussion. Having him on the Leafs' roster would be beneficial as it would present an opportunity to showcase his talents to potential suitors. As good as he's been in the AHL, the NHL is comprised of a different breed of players and rival managers will want to ensure he can contribute with regularity.

    Of course there is always the possibility that he doesn't thrive and lowers his overall value, but as a young player just getting his feet wet in the NHL, anyone would be short-sighted to give up on a talent like Kadri without giving him ample opportunity to flourish.

    Again, this isn't to say that a deal involving Kadri is imminent or even being discussed at the current time, but he's a talented young player whose name will surface when the Leafs engage in trade talks. With continued improvement at the NHL level, Kadri's stock may never be higher if a deal is in the works for Toronto.

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