Heading into this summer, Nazem Kadri knew he had to make a number of changes to his game if he was going to crack the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.
First? Gain some much needed weight on his smallish frame so he could compete in the NHL. Kadri succeeded doing just that, adding around 15 pounds of muscle and bringing his weight up to an acceptable 188 pounds on his 6’0” frame.
Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was quite clear about Kadri’s chances of making the team all summer long. If Kadri put in his time at the weight room, developed his game away from the puck, and still managed to contribute offensively, he had an excellent shot at making the team.
Failure to do so would likely see Kadri end up with the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies, with an eye on developing his overall game.
After a lackluster rookie tournament and subsequent poor showing in his first few preseason games, questions began to surface about Kadri’s compete level and his ability to contribute at the NHL level.
Heading into Wednesday’s action against the Ottawa Senators, Kadri had amassed zero points and a plus/minus rating of minus-3 in three preseason games.
Needless to say, Kadri’s overall play has raised some eyebrows, and not in a good way.
Earlier this week Burke criticized Kadri for his lackluster play stating, “He’s (Kadri) not anywhere near to the level we (the Leafs) had hoped for and expected. I don't know why that is, but he's running out of time."
With everyone seemingly falling off the Kadri bandwagon, the kid they simply call “Naz” had his most impressive game so far, scoring two goals and adding an assist on Phil Kessel’s game winner. That brought the Leafs' preseason record to 4-2-1, good enough for first in the Northeast Division.
For Kadri, his two-goal performance was a breath of fresh air.
Wednesday night offered a glimpse of what the talented 19-year old can bring. The question is: was his three-point night enough to earn him another shot to play against the Detroit Red Wings on Friday and Saturday night?
With the Leafs so thin up front, it behooves the Leafs to give Kadri another shot. At the end of the day, what do they have to lose?
If Kadri fails to impress over the next two games the Maple Leafs can simply send him down to the Marlies with little to no guilt. On the other hand, if Kadri does manage to impress and/or manages to show a decent amount of chemistry on one of the top three lines, the Maple Leafs can extend his tryout to a 10-game stint with the big club to start the season before reassessing.
Let’s face it: after the Maple Leafs first line of Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak, there really isn’t a lot there.
The second and third lines are full of players with admirable compete levels, and Nikolai Kulemin has looked very good to start the season. But without the benefit of three solid lines the Leafs will struggle to win games.
Toronto's first 10 games are all against Eastern Conference foes, who will put more of an emphasis on defense than their Western Conference counterparts.
With that in mind, it would seem as if Kadri’s defensive deficiencies would be well hidden against the Leafs' first 10 opponents that include the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa senators, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and the Florida Panthers. All of them struggled to put the puck in the net during the 2009-10 season.
For Kadri to be successful I have always said he will need to find a way to crack the Maple Leafs' first two lines. Playing alongside Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak on the power play, Kadri looked right at home, demonstrating strong offensive instincts and possessing the confidence that has seemingly been missing for much of the preseason.
Having Kadri on your third and fourth lines does not use his talents effectively and undermines what he should naturally bring to this team—scoring.
Having played well on the wing against Ottawa, it may be worth another look with Kadri playing alongside Bozak and Kessel on the Maple Leafs' top line.
As good as Kris Versteeg has been on the line with Bozak and Kessel, moving Kadri to the first or second line on the left side might be just what the doctor ordered to spark the Maple Leafs offense, which has been good this preseason, but will see plenty of challenges along the way during the 2010-11 season.
A lineup that featured Kadri, Bozak and Kessel as the Leafs' first unit, followed by a unit of Mikhail Garbovski centering Kulemin and Versteeg, would seem to make more sense than putting all of your eggs (Versteeg, Bozak, Kessel) in one basket?
Alternatively, a second unit of Grabovski, Kulemin and Kadri may make more sense, but I would be a little weary of that trio’s ability to keep the puck out of the net.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still think Kadri could/would benefit from some time at the AHL level, but a guy can dream, right?
Either way, it says here Kadri has earned another shot to prove himself, for better or for worse, and his outstanding performance against the Ottawa Senators couldn’t have come at a better time.
After all, as Burke said, “…he’s (Kadri) running out of time…"
Until next time,