Toronto Maple Leafs' Patience with Nazem Kadri is Paying Huge Dividends
Kadri came into 2013 under the microscope as a player in a "make or break" season following a few failed attempts to crack the NHL roster on a permanent basis since he was drafted in 2009.
Some fans wondered if Kadri would be another first-round bust for the Leafs, and others wanted former general manager Brian Burke to trade him. Burke refused to deal Kadri, which has proven to be the right decision.
Will Kadri lead Toronto in scoring this season?
The Leafs have sent him to the AHL's Toronto Marlies on several occasions over the last few years to work on his game with brilliant head coach Dallas Eakins.
Kadri's hard work in the minors with Eakins has really paid off, because the 22-year-old forward has been the Leafs' most impressive player this season.
He leads the team in scoring with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 23 games. Coming into this season, he had scored just 19 points in 51 career NHL games from 2009-10 through 2011-12.
With superstar winger Phil Kessel failing to score goals at the rate many expected from him (he has five goals in 23 games), the emergence of Kadri as a dependable offensive player is an encouraging sign for the Leafs.
Confidence often gives young players a tremendous boost, especially NHLers like Kadri who have immense offensive skill . Right now, the young forward is playing with a ton of confidence and it's really showing in his play.
His performance in last Thursday's win over the New York Islanders was a perfect example of the special player that Kadri has the potential to become. He scored a hat trick at the Nassau Coliseum (the first of his career), and the goal that completed it was one of this season's most exciting plays (video above).
In addition to his goalscoring ability, Kadri has great hands, impressive speed, excellent vision, a high compete level and improved playmaking skills. What's even more impressive is his ability to posses the puck and not turn it over on a frequent basis, which is a huge plus for a Leafs team that leads the league in giveaways.
Kadri has also gotten better defensively since the end of last season. He has 22 hits, nine takeaways and a plus/minus rating of 12, which is the second-highest on the Leafs and the best among the team's forwards.
He's by no means an elite defensive forward, but Kadri is no longer a liability in the defensive zone and his development in this area of the game has been trending in the right direction. His time in the AHL has certainly impacted his defensive skills in a positive way.
In addition to more playing time with the Leafs, Kadri also needs a coach that believes in him and is willing to give him a fair chance to earn a permanent spot on the NHL roster.
Randy Carlyle has done that this season, and his teaching and patience with the young forward has really benefited Kadri's progress.
Not every player, especially ones with enormous talent who are burdened with the pressure of being a star in Toronto, develop at a quick pace and become stars in very little time.
The Leafs have rushed a good number of prospects to the NHL over the last 20 years, and their handling of Kadri has proven that if you give talented young players the time needed to develop, they will contribute at the NHL level.
If Kessel is not re-signed when he can become a UFA in the summer of 2014, Kadri could become the face-of-the-franchise-type player that Leafs fans expected Kessel to be when he was acquired from the rival Boston Bruins in 2009.
He does need to get stronger, win more faceoffs and keep working on his defensive play, but Kadri has all the tools needed to be a No. 1 or No. 2 center in the NHL for many years.
To his credit, Kadri has taken huge strides in his development this year, and has proven that he can be an important part of the Leafs' success right now and well into the future.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.
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