The Toronto Maple Leafs have been looking for a true first line center since Mats Sundin last skated in the blue and white. Many felt their search was over when the Leafs drafted Nazem Kadri with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. Since that time, Kadri's play has had its peaks and valleys, leading many to question his future in Toronto.
Most players take time to adjust to the NHL game and their corresponding role. Kadri has, in many ways, been eased into the Maple Leafs scheme. The 2012-13 strike-shortened season was the first time Kadri spent the entire season with the Leafs.
During the short season, Kadri showed fans a glimpse of his potential by finishing second on the team in points, behind Phil Kessel. His 18 goals and 26 assists in 48 games showed he could be an offensive force for the Leafs.
While most of his points were accumulated playing on the third line, it appeared the young center had turned the corner and was poised to take his permanent spot as a top-six forward. This season came with heightened expectations for Kadri, as he was expected to continue to progress into a top center.
So far, this season has not been kind to Kadri's growth as a player. His point totals are off from last season's pace (11 goals and 12 assists in 38 games). He was also suspended for three games in November for delivering a hit on Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom.
Part of the point drop-off may be partially due to moving between lines and the multiple line mates he has played with this season. The amount of injuries to the Maple Leafs forward corps has required the shuffling of players between lines.
Kadri appears to have shown little growth in his decision-making this season. He continues to make the same mistakes in turning the puck over.
Perhaps of most concern was his performance when centering the first line in Tyler Bozak's absence.
Top centers know how to use their line mates' skills to the fullest by setting them up or positioning themselves to be a recipient. During his time with Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk, Kadri tried to press his game. This limited the chances of his high-scoring line mates.
This may have been Kadri pressing to make a good impression, but it perpetuated rumors of a potential exit from Toronto.
Brian Stubits of NHL.com quoted Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos, who tweeted: "In wake of Carlyle rant this morning 2 #NHL clubs have confirmed for me #Leafs have made Kadri available in any trade discussion."
This may be the best time for the Leafs to shop Kadri. If his play does not improve, his value will only come down. His current salary and his potential to be a top-six forward make him an attractive option for other teams.
The question is if this is a ploy by the Leafs to try and push their young star to pick up his game, or are they serious in using Kadri as trade bait to bring in another center or D-man?
A ticket out of Toronto may be what Kadri's career needs to get back on the right path. Whether he stays or goes, Kadri needs to realize that, even as a young player, there are only so many opportunities that come your way.
Kadri's career may very well be at a crossroads. The road he takes from here will define his career.
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