Everyone remembers this past training camp and the anticipation around Nazem Kadri’s hoped-for triumphant inclusion in the team’s “top-six” forward rotation.
Ron Wilson had made some hopeful public comments in the past about young Kadri and that may have been part of the fan-base enthusiasm. But given where we are geographically, the media presence—and the fact that the Leafs have not been a good team since 2004— well, it was going to happen anyway.
So there was much gnashing of teeth from the fan base when Kadri started the season—as he should have—with the AHL Marlies. I’ve posted often that that was exactly where he would best develop and, gradually, earn a place on the big team.
But when the team struggled to score several weeks ago, the call went out to Kadri. The Leaf brass by no means suggested he was the saviour, but calling him up at the precise moment they did certainly smelled of at least mild desperation.
We now know the short-term (and I stress short-term, because things can change in a hurry) results: 16 games, 0 goals, 6 assists and a minus four so far.
Now, Kadri has just missed scoring on several occasions, and he has set up linemates nicely only to see them not convert a number of times. So, the statistics alone don’t tell the whole story for Kadri.
I may have the chronology wrong (sometimes I remember things better that happened fifty years ago than I do three weeks ago…), but I seem to recall that when he was called up, Kadri was immediately placed on the “first” line...as a winger.
Then he was promoted to center one of the top lines. Then he moved to the fourth line, Leaf brass apparently believing there would be less pressure. Yet he was still given some time on the power play.
By this past Saturday night in
, he was a healthy scratch. Vancouver
Now, he is hardly the first young player to go through this. Not everyone shows up and starts scoring from Day One. In fact, Stamkos comes to mind as a guy who (although he was two years younger, I believe) struggled often in his rookie year and actually sat upstairs and watched for several games before returning to the line-up.
Right now, Stamkos is among the very best offensive players in the world.
While I acknowledge a sense of optimism about his future, the questions around Kadri are many, however. There have been all kinds of high-scoring junior players who, for whatever reason, didn’t see their game translate at the higher level. It might have been attitude, work ethic, or just the reality of playing night after night against tougher competition. But for Kadri, one wonders: must he be an elite goal-scorer to be effective at this level? Does he have the overall skill set to be a first or second-line center? Would he be more effective right now in a checking role (though the Leafs already have plenty of those types of forwards) and as penalty-killing and power-play specialist, to sort of work his way into a more prominent—and high-pressure—role?
I remember a well-respected Toronto Star writer commenting on Lanny McDonald back in McDonald’s third NHL season. McDonald had been a very-high draft choice in 1973 (third overall, I think?), a huge scorer in
. Medicine Hat
But he stumbled a lot (literally and figuratively) in his first two seasons and by year three, writers like the Star guy were basically saying, well, he’ll never be a big scorer at this level, but he could become a decent NHL checker and have a pretty nice career.
Well, McDonald, shortly after that, started getting more and more comfortable and went on to score 500 goals in a Hall-of-Fame career— and captain a Stanley-Cup winning team in
So, with that as just one example, I am not willing to make any prognostications about Kadri not being able to make the adjustment to the pro game (to become a good goal-scorer), based on such a small sample-size of games.
I see him as a player, and I’m guessing most Leaf fans do as well. This is a tough time to get integrated into the line up, when winning has been tough and offensive confidence seems to be fragile right across the board.
I guess my bigger question is: will he morph into a more complete player? You know, become hard to play against, a guy that brings more than playmaking or goal-scoring to the table?
We’re still asking the same questions about Kessel, and he’s been in the league already for a few years. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time.
I recall writing, when the Leafs brought Kadri up, that it was likely for good, because they would do everything they could to make his call-up a success. They didn’t—and don’t—want to botch this one.
If they were to send him back, what is the message?
So I don’t see that happening. Could he benefit from more time in the AHL? Maybe. At the end of camp I was of the view that he should spend at least half a season with the Marlies. I’m not sure the call-up was well-timed, but I suppose I wouldn’t be saying this if he had 10 goals and the team was winning a lot.
But he is where he is. I think the Leafs have to stay the course. Once he scores a goal, and he will, I believe he will keep scoring. I don’t mean the floodgates will open, necessarily, but he will be able to relax and play.
More than Kadri, though, what the Leafs need right now is for Gustavsson to have a huge game on Monday night…and to keep having huge games after the Christmas break. Then the scorers might relax, and good things can happen.