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The Kadri conundrum

Leaf supporters, like most passionate sports fans, have the natural desire to want to see “their own” do well.  It could be the “local boy” we want to see make good or it could be a player drafted by the team.

When I was a kid, back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the Leafs “owned” junior teams like the Marlies and St. Mikes.  You knew who was “in the system” and who had a shot at making the big team.  There was no real draft but it was fun to watch their development and to see who would eventually become Maple Leafs.

It’s different now, of course.  But certain players still catch your eye.

So when Brian Burke had his first opportunity as Leaf GM to make a first-round draft choice in June, 2009, we were all anxious to see what direction he would go in.  We had our answer when he went with skill and touch and grabbed London junior Nazem Kadri early in the first round.

Fairly or not, because the Leafs ended up moving their next (what would have turned out to be very high, as we all well know) first-round selections in the Kessel deal, we have focused an awful lot on young Kadri.  (That intense microscope may be lessened somewhat because of the recent trades for and possible emergence of Gardiner and Colborne, also former first-round choices.)  Two years ago he came to camp, impressed at times, but as expected, went back to junior hockey so he could develop further as a big fish in a less pressure-filled pond.

Last year at this time, he showed flashes (wasn’t there a 4-point night against the Senators in pre-season?), but again, the brass thought he needed to work on various aspects of his game so Kadri started the season with the Marlies in the AHL.

Yet, when the big team was in a scoring funk, a bit of panic saw them throw out the S.O.S. to a 20-year old kid.  Kadri joined the big team—earlier than observers such as myself felt was timely, as I posted here at the time.

He started well enough, but it didn't seem to last.  Maybe he wasn't given enough of a chance to really settle in.

My view was (and is), if you were going to send him to the AHL, as they did before last season started, let him experience life as a young pro for an extended period.  Don’t rush the learning process and don’t make him the guy you call up and then expect him to solve your scoring troubles.

I’d have to check back on my posts (and my memory!) throughout last season, but I seem to recall that he was initially going to be a first-line and power-play guy.  Over time, he seemed to go from being a center to a winger, from the top lines to more third or fourth-line duty.  Wasn’t there more time with the Marlies, and then another call-up?

I just thought the whole thing was odd. (A bit like the peculiar Blue Jays’ handling of young Travis Snider the last couple of years, but that’s off topic…)

Fast-forward to this year’s training camp.  Again the expectation is that, with another summer of “working out”, more maturity and all that, the young man would obviously earn a spot with the big club.  No question.

So what are we seeing?  The vision and skills that are usually evident in his often offensively impressive game, but also an annoying penchant for turning the puck over at some inopportune moments.  Specifically, at places on the ice where the other team suddenly has its transition game going full speed and Leaf forwards, including Nazem, are caught up ice.

And it’s not just we fans who notice this.  Burke made a point of raising that exact issue after the game against the Sabres in Buffalo on Saturday night.

For the moment, forget the so-called competition with Frattin.  Frattin is a different type of player, who has played less “games” than Kadri in recent years but, as an NCAA guy, is older and perhaps a little more polished in certain areas.  Frattin was a Ferguson draft-pick and looks to be a guy with a future in this line-up, too.

But we’re talking about Kadri here.  And where, precisely, are we in his “development”.

He says all the right things.  Can’t knock his attitude.  He seems to work hard, doesn’t take anything for granted.  That’s good.

I guess I’m of two minds here.  Hockey is way different than when I was young.  Turnovers happened all the time in the old days.  (Watch most any game from the ‘50s and ‘60s.  There were tons of “turnovers”.  It was a different game.  Shifts lasted forever; guys were exhausted by the end of their shift routinely so turnovers were not uncommon…)

Today’s game is coached by coaches trained in the art of “x’s” and “o’s”, systems, playing your position with fanatical precision. Shifts last maybe 40 seconds, all at high speed.  Nowadays, when a guy tries to make a play and turns the puck over, the game is so fast that it does indeed often create an actual scoring opportunity going the other way.  That drives coaches crazy, all the way down (sadly) to the pee-wee level.

And when it’s a young guy trying to earn his spurs, especially, who makes those kinds of “mistakes”, he gets an earful—and a ticket to the bench—or worse.

It’s a shame, in a sense.  How will Kadri ever reach his potential if he lives in fear of making a mistake?  As I often say, you can’t play with a piano on your back, constantly worried that every move you make on the ice is being micro-analyzed.

Players get better by trying things, learning from experience.  If they have the right attitude and aren’t making errors simply because of laziness or hard-headedness, then what they usually need is support and encouragement, along with the usual modern-day things like film-study and the occasional kick in the ass.

That said, I try to understand that coaches have certain expectations nowadays.  Unless you are an absolute superstar talent (and even Ovechkin last year was being told to play a less risky game…) the expectations are that you will play “the system” and play a team game.  That means keying on your defensive responsibilities, and making plays that won’t create turnovers at the other team’s blueline, etc.

So here we are with young Kadri.  Quite a conundrum.  We (and the Leaf brass, I’m sure) can all see that the young man has skill, has the talent to play well—and even turn heads on occasion—at this level.

But in the same breath, he seems to infuriate coaches who see that skill but maybe don’t see if utilized the way they want often enough.

Maybe the question is:  Are the Leafs being “too hard” on a young soon-to-be 21-year old player, simply because of the expectations that come with being a first-round pick?  Or is he simply not “getting it”?

I’ve sometimes wondered, and posted here in the past, that my sense is the Leafs would move Kadri if another team came knocking with an offer they couldn’t refuse.  That is, they’re not quite “married” to him just yet, even though he was Burke’s “first” first-round Leaf selection.  In fact, I believe he has been “in play” a few times, but the deals just haven’t come to fruition.  No proof, no sources, just a sense that his name has been “on the table” and may continue to be, for a team that may not be so concerned about his “deficiencies” and would be more than happy to grab a talented offensive player not even near his prime.

From your perspective, where do you sit?  Do the Leafs need to back off and just let the kid play, develop, and get his confidence to the point where he has the kind of swagger he had in junior hockey?

Or, does he still need to spend some time riding the buses, learning the pro game, until he is ready to step into one of the top two lines here—for good?


  1. Let Kadri play. With the infusion of summer pickups and talent presently available to the Leafs, Kadri can shed some of that pressure you mentioned. I firmly believe he will develop into the player many expect him to be.

    Leafs have other young talented palyers that can share the responsibility of balanced scoring.

  2. Not that I want him back, OR that I feel Michael's sentiment seriously applies here, (we do know Burke is perfectly willing to let players mature properly, see: Anaheim) but this post made me think of Pat Quinn for some strange reason.....

  3. Thanks for your post, Faeldam. My sense is you're not alone in wanting Kadri to be allowed to "just play" and get better over time.

    KidK, I hear you, and always respect your thoughts and recollections. My own perhaps biased view of Quinn's tenure is (I realize many saw him as favouring older players and not wanting to run with younger guys) that he did indeed often give kids a chance. In 1998-'99, his first season in Toronto, he went with three rookie defensemen and they went to the Conference finals. In later years he gave Stajan an early shot, Steen, etc.

    I agree that Burke will let guys grow, but I do wonder if management (including Wilson) keep moving the bar somehow when it comes to Kadri. It seems that his mistakes are more prominently mentioned than when others make similar faux-pas'.

    Thus what I see as a bit of a conundrum. Kid has skills. Management is waiting for him to show something they want/need. He thinks he's delivering. They always want a little more.

    Others may well see this very differently, I realize!

  4. I think many of us would like to see Kadri succeed with the Leafs. Sure, he makes mistakes, but his game is improving and he's definitely got some flash and skill. The problem for me is: where does he fit right now? Not on either of the top two lines, so we're down to lines 3 & 4. He's not a grinder, so that leaves line 3. Has he shown enough in pre-season to set himself above the others striving for one of the three available spots? Not to my eyes, and I say that with disappointment. I'd give it to Frattin, based on what I've seen.
    And I suppose that's the problem Leafs' management has. He's got talent for sure - but where does he fit? Those maddening giveaways, the strange mental lapses...
    I'd send him to the Marlies, but make him one of the first call-ups.

  5. I also don't get the argument that it's not worth Kadri's or our time to keep him on the 3rd line backburner. Time in the NHL is time, and if he's free to have less pressure there for the season, then what is the drawback? Or do we believe that once you start on something other than the first or second line, that's it?

  6. I'm a bit uncertain (confused?) as well, KidK, regarding the team's thinking (and maybe we fans as well) on the last point that you raise. Can a "third-line" player not be a point-producer? Do all three guys have to be obsessed with defensive responsibilities only? It would seem if our third-line can score often, that's a plus, assuming they aren't killing us defensively...

    Again, all part of the peculiar approach to Kadri (can't make mistakes, but must be a "top-six" guy...).

  7. I think the challenge is that he does make defensive mistakes. If he could cut those down and still be a scoring threat when the opportunity arose, he'd be gold.