Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Reason to Watch the Marlies

nazem kadri leafs marlies
By all indications, Nazem Kadri will start the 2010-2011 season in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies. Ron Wilson originally penciled Kadri into the opening night line-up after an impressive season in the OHL, but the former seventh overall pick has registered an underwhelming training camp. I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as bad, but it hasn’t been nearly good enough to warrant inclusion among the top-6 forwards.

Kadri was the Leafs' wild card heading into this season. A potential internal upgrade to a Leafs' offense predicted to struggle this season. This is one of the reasons he’s garnered so much media attention. However, on the ice he’s looked tentative and unsure, possibly due to the great expectations laid at his skates.

Kadri’s demotion may concern some (or put all of Leafs Nation into a panic if you believe certain journalists), but it is the best thing for Kadri long-term.

First, the amount of pressure on Kadri is incredible. Without another first round pick the Leafs must play considerably better than they did last season to avoid giving the Bruins another high draft pick. If he made the team, Kadri would be expected to shoulder a large burden of the offensive responsibilities and if he didn’t succeed in his rookie season he would be judged harshly. I'm not saying Leafs Nation expect him to single-handedly make the Leafs a playoff team, but the hope isn't far from it.

Also because the Leafs traded away last season’s first round pick Kadri will be unfairly compared to Tyler Seguin. Leafs Nation desperately want Kadri to outperform the second overall pick to somehow make them feel better about dealing it away. Seriously, we’re thinking about that.

Let’s do a quick checklist of what Kadri must do this season: 1) add a dynamic element to the Leafs’ offense as a rookie; 2) outscore Tyler Seguin (or knock him out with a body-check); 3) don’t hurt the team defensively; 4) become the saviour of the franchise. That’s a lot to ask of a rookie.

The only players with more pressure are Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. There is no reason to start Kadri in this sort of environment. It’s practically setting him up for failure. There is no way he can live up to these ridiculous expectations. He needs time to slowly develop.

Developing high draft picks is not the Leafs’ greatest strength (making money is). Prior to Luke Schenn, the highest draft pick was Jiri Tlusty, taken with the 13th overall pick in 2006. Tlusty made his debut with the Leafs as a 19-year-old and added 16 points in 58 games. He started the next season poorly and spent most of the season playing well in the AHL. Burke traded him last season to the Hurricanes and he’s yet to do anything more memorable than show his penis on the internet.

I wish this was an isolated incident (the poor development, not the penis showing). The years the Leafs actually drafted in the first round they eventually gave up on their picks before they could develop (Carlo Coliacovo, Alex Steen, Tuukka Rask, and Brad Boyes). Before that the Leafs’ wasted high draft picks on Brandon Convery, Drake Berehowsky, Scott Thornton, Scott Pearson, and Luke Richardson – all taken in the top-10, yet none of whom made an actual impact in the NHL (I guess Richardson had a surprisingly long career, but he wasn’t exactly good).

This graveyard of broken down draft picks is the main reason Kadri needs to spend time in the AHL.

Allowing a highly touted draft pick to begin his professional career in the minors is something Brian Burke has consistently done throughout his NHL career. Leaf fans can look back to just this past year for an immediate example. Burke sent Tyler Bozak to the AHL after an impressive training camp and received a first year player who scored at a league best PPG basis (among rookies) upon his return.

Burke also followed this plan in Anaheim. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry both started the 2005-2006 season in the AHL, despite tearing up the WHL and OHL during the lockout. In 17 games in the AHL, Getzlaf scored 33 points in 17 games, while Perry notched 34 points in 19 games. This offensive outburst meant Burke recalled them fairly quickly.

Burke also allowed Bobby Ryan time in the AHL, where he scored 77 points in 70 games over the course of three partial seasons. Although Ryan’s AHL demotion was more based on salary cap implications rather than his ability. Either way, the time in the AHL certainly didn’t hurt Ryan considering he’s scored back-to-back 30+ goal seasons the past two years.

The 2003 NHL Entry draft provides more evidence of the AHL's power. 2003 is generally regarded as one of the best draft classes in the history of the league. Some of the superstars taken in the first round include Eric Staal, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Mike Richards. Other notable players include Marc-Andre Fleury, Nathan Horton, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Brayden Coburn, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Brent Burns, and Ryan Kesler. And that’s just the first round. Loui Eriksson, Shea Weber, Patrice Bergeron, Matt Carle, and David Backes were all taken in the second round. That’s obscene.

Toronto stole John Mitchell in the fifth round… That’s the best they could do.

The prevailing hypothesis as to why all these players developed so strongly from this draft class is because the lockout cancelled the 2004-2005 NHL season, forcing these players to play another season in junior or spend time in the AHL.

The most striking example of the AHL's benefits is Eric Staal, the second overall pick from 2003. The Hurricanes rushed Staal to the NHL as an 18-year-old and he scored only 11 goals and 20 assists in 81 games. During the lockout, Staal played for the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL and scored 77 points in 77 games, while adding 10 points in 11 playoff games. The next season with the Hurricanes, Staal scored 45 goals and added 55 assists on route to a monster 100 point season that solidified him as a superstar.

This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the benefits of the AHL. It’s much better for Kadri to go to the AHL and play top-line minutes in every situation than play on the third-line for the Leafs in a role that he isn’t comfortable with or suited for. Spending time in the AHL will also make Kadri hungry to play in the NHL. He’ll get a chance to see how hard players work in the AHL to make it to the big league, which should not only humble him, but motivate him.

A demotion to the AHL isn't the end of Kadri's career, it's just a temporary starting point.


Anonymous said...

Ugh. Kadri sucks, Burkie should trade him before he flops in the big leagues and his value drops.


Matt Horner said...

Your comment is all kinds of stupid.

buck s. said...

In all honesty, Burke's future depends a lot on what happens with Kadri this year. If the Leafs fail again, but Kadri plays well, I think some of the attention will be off Burke, because at least his one draft pick is performing. On the other hand, if the Leafs plummet, and Kadri stays in the AHL, it'll be Burke's fault for leaving him down there and letting the team fail.

I don't believe the talk of Burke getting fired, regardless of what happens this year, but it would definitely put him on thin-ice.

Bo Jackson said...

I think if the team is failing and Kadri is playing well in the minors there will be no hesitation bringing him up.

Burke is certainly safe this year, regardless of outcome, but the same can't be said for Ron Wilson. Although, if the Leafs do fail horribly, Burke will be on thin-ice for sure.

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