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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Soon is Now? Is Kadri Ready

Nazem Kadri Leafs
The time for Nazem Kadri to make the NHL is now.

On average it takes a prospect about three years to stick in the NHL. That’s exactly how many years it has been since the Leafs spent the seventh overall pick in the 2009 entry draft on Kadri.

This is a pivotal season for Kadri to prove he’s capable of playing in the NHL. The Leafs need to see it happen now, because the longer it takes for him to prove he’s ready, the more his trade value diminishes. And as a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, the Leafs can’t afford to waste a top-10 draft pick.

Thankfully, compared to the rest of his draft class, Kadri isn’t too far behind. Five of the top six picks have established themselves as NHLers, but the rest of the group is largely still struggling to solidify their place on an NHL roster. Kadri has actually played more NHL games than Ryan Ellis, Zack Kassian, David Rundblad, Louis Leblanc, Chris Kreider, and Tim Erixon, all well-respected prospects. In comparison to Brayden Schenn, taken two spots ahead of Kadri and generally considered a better prospect, the young Maple Leaf has actually scored at a better rate.

Kadri’s vision has always been elite and his skill has produced 81 points in 92 AHL games, plus another 10 in 11 playoff games. Based on skill alone, Kadri is NHL-ready, but his body hasn’t been able to keep pace with his talents.

“He’s slowly getting stronger and he’s starting to figure out how he has to play to stay [in the NHL],” Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said in a Google+ Hangout at the end of June. “It’s up to him now. He knows he needs to get stronger, he needs another step.”

Kadri has added close to 20 pounds since the day he was drafted, but that hasn’t translated on the ice at the NHL level. During his brief stints with the big club he has been easily knocked off the puck and doesn’t have an explosive gear to compensate.

That’s why this summer is crucial in Kadri’s development.

In years past Kadri was likely to go back to London for the summer and follow his own training regiment, rather than working out at the Marlies’ training facilities, Eakins said. Two years of being shuttled back and forth between the AHL and NHL must have convinced Kadri that his normal routine wasn’t cutting it, so he’s enlisted the help of fitness guru Gary Roberts.

“In the first few weeks I would excuse myself, go yak, and then get back to working out,” Kadri said in an interview with Mike Ulmer of MapleLeafs.com.

After Steven Stamkos worked with Roberts following his rookie season and subsequently became the world’s greatest goal scorer, players have lined up to work with the former Maple Leaf. Last summer alone more than 40 players took part in Roberts’ intense off-ice summer camp. Those players included Brayden Schenn, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Cody Hodgson, and James Neal, another player who saw a big breakout after working with Roberts.

Regardless of the fact that Brian Burke should have hounded Roberts the very second after Kadri was drafted, it is encouraging that Kadri is finally taking the most crucial and, perhaps, last step to becoming a full-time Maple Leaf.

But fitness is not the only thing that has kept Kadri from making an impact in the NHL. Kadri has been weak in the defensive zone, something that kept him out of Ron Wilson’s good books. Now with Randy Carlyle behind the bench, managing the puck and making smart plays will be even more important. According to Eakins, Kadri is improving in this area of his game as well.

“He’s made great strides in managing the puck, he’s better in his own zone,” Eakins said in an interview with Michael Traikos of the National Post in May. “He’s come a long way from where he was a year ago.”

If Kadri is able to clean up his defensive game, his other skills will make him a quality player. Plus, the fact that Kadri plays with an edge to his game and is a little nasty on the ice will help endear himself to Carlyle, and adding muscle to his slight frame will help him play this way. He isn’t afraid to throw a big check if the opportunity presents itself, and he has even shown a willingness to drop the gloves at times.



Kadri has the tools to be successful in the NHL, and if he comes to training camp with a body more appropriate for the NHL rather than the boy’s section of a Sears catalogue, the Leafs will have themselves a player. Where they stick that player is another issue.

The Leafs have yet to settle on a position for Kadri. In junior he was a centre, a position he has only briefly played in the NHL. Wilson tried using Kadri as a winger, which might not be a position that best suits his playmaking style, and he has shuffled back and forth between centre and wing in the AHL. In many cases the Marlies used Mike Zigomanis as a centre with Kadri on the wing, so his long-term viability as a centre is questionable.

It is well established that the Leafs have a gaping hole at centre on the first line. Hoping Kadri is the long-awaited answer between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul is shouldering a lot of responsibility and pressure on the 21-year-old. It doesn’t help that the first line isn’t very defensively responsible even without Kadri.

Another spot would be as a second line winger with Mikhail Grabovski as the centre. This is probably the best spot for Kadri as Grabovski is the Leafs best centre and is excellent in his own end. The problem, however, at least based on the last third of the season, is that Carlyle seems intent on using Grabovski as his shutdown centre, meaning Kadri would be exposed to some heavy competition. That’s not exactly putting him in a position to succeed.

At this point in his career Kadri has done almost all there is to do in the AHL. There is a packed roster above him, but he has a summer of hard work ahead of him to force management into making a hard decision about someone else.

2 comments:

Ted said...

At least Kadri was in the boys section of the Sears catalogue... I think Wellwood modeled for the girls section for a few years.

Nancy Tex said...

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