Takin' a T/O With BT: Nazem Kadri Fits Better as a Maple Leaf Wingman...For Now
For the time being, the Toronto Maple Leafs have solved all of their problems.
That's not to say that they're perfect—in fact they're far from it—but a thrilling comeback win over the Nashville Predators and a hard-fought victory over the, struggling or not, hated New Jersey Devils has Toronto's fan base backing off the panic button ever so slightly.
It's the beauty of playing in such a deranged hockey market: Feelings can pull a complete 180 as quickly as they escalate.
Some may claim that it's the presence of perceived super-rookie Nazem Kadri. After all, they're 2-1 since he was called up a week ago, he's been averaging just under 20 minutes a game, and he's got three assists in three games.
Simple math right?
While Kadri's presence is welcome, and his hunger to show that he does belong has helped turn the team from the hot-and-cold unit that lost to Vancouver to the one who's power play and full effort has led them on this mini-streak, it's the fact they actually decided to start playing like a team. And a good one at that.
Don't overlook the efforts of the former London Knight though.
Before harping on the bad habits Kadri developed in his last season in Junior became the only thing worth reporting or discussing in training camp, I had raised these concerns during last year's OHL's regular season and playoffs.
Although the point totals were gaudy, they were stilted and one dimensional. A majority of Kadri's 58 regular season assists and 18 playoff assists were secondary ones; not that they came second on the score sheet, but that they were from tap-in goals for his teammates off of Kadri's rebounds, or last ditch passes by the Leafs' last top pick after a solo rush had gone stale.
People pointed to his 105 penalty minutes as the "added toughness that Burke wanted". No it wasn't. It was a culmination of lazy stick fouls, a mouth with no filter, and displays of diving.
Nazem Kadri, by his own admission, had a lot of growing to do.
And while he may not have had much time to do it at the AHL level, the Leafs may have found him the perfect spot to flourish in the NHL. For now at least.
On the wing.
Kadri was a centre in Junior. He was sent out in moments big or small. He would take the first and finals faceoffs of the period, get double-shifted because of a lack of scoring punch, and try to control the centre of the ice. When he was drafted seventh overall by the Leafs in 2009, most thought: Here we go. A number one centre the Leafs can build around.
But what people fail to realize sometimes, is that playing the middle of the ice is one of the hardest things to do at the NHL level. Winning faceoffs alone takes a few years to become an expert at in most cases. Why else do you think that low-line, grinding centres who can control the puck are so valuable when they hardly score?
For an offensive prospect such as Kadri, you're also expecting him to control the middle of the rink like he did in Junior. To be able to see the game at live speed and make adjustments. We've all seen rookies flounder in the middle. We know what it looks like.
Like what the Bruins had planned to do with Tyler Seguin and what Carolina is doing with Jeff Skinner, Kadri was placed on the left wing in his first, second and third games, which has been as important to his development as calling him up was.
While bad habits won't fly long-term in the NHL, it's alright if Kadri shoots a little more on the wing, rather than if we were being relied upon to centre and set up Phil Kessel. When he's on the ice, he can actually see and pick up what his centre is doing right and wrong during a shift, and that will register with him.
Whether it's as effective as the "live and learn" strategy would have been in terms of just throwing him down the middle of the ice to make his mistakes can be debated, but it gives him that little extra bit of knowledge for when he gets his chance there.
And as we've seen from his first few games, he is learning. He's beginning to look pass first again, and instead of carrying the puck coast to coast and doing it all himself, he's content to dump it in, or even follow the puck carrier, and just go to where he's supposed to be.
One day, Nazem Kadri will left in the middle of the ice for the long term to "do his thing", "live and learn", "fly by the seat of his pants", or whatever you want to call it.
The fact is, there's no better place for him to learn right now, than on the wing.
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