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Kadri: desperation can change the game plan

We all remember the spring/summertime (and very hopeful) talk from Leaf management about young Nazem Kadri.

Wilson mused about possibilities and potential. Burke, a bit more circumspect, made it clear to everyone that if Kadri was to make the Leafs in the fall of 2010, it would have to be as a “top-six” forward.

That made perfect sense. A 20 year-old “rookie”—even one with a strong junior hockey background, who is essentially an offensive player, as most “star” players are at that level— usually spends time in the minors. And if they do make it to the NHL sooner than perhaps expected (or are truly ready), management wants them in a role that sets them up for success, not potential failure.

One (now two) games into the pre-season schedule, the coach is now already wondering aloud about the possibility of Kadri as a third-line center with the big club. We are assured he will still have to earn his spot. But this pronouncement does lead to some questions.

For example, why have the Leafs so quickly moved off their earlier and strongly-stated position that if Kadri stays, he needs to play as, essentially, a second-line center? Has another center jumped ahead of him in the early days of camp? Is he better defensively than everyone expected, thus making a “third-line” designation more logical for a young rookie?

At the best of times training camp can be misleading. As I’ve posted previously, many players—youngsters, guys making comebacks, incoming veterans looking for one last 'depth' role— look great early on in camp. But assessing how someone looks at training camp, or during pre-season games, doesn’t always mean that player will be the best option when the games start to count.

In the case of Kadri, I’m sensing it will take every bit of the pre-season for the Leaf brass to fully evaluate if he should stay, or instead spend valuable apprenticeship time with the AHL Marlies. It’s already clear he is a talent worth developing.

Fans are no doubt anxious to see him in blue and white and contributing with the big club. But given where the Leafs are at, the long-term view is the wise one. The concern cannot be about what will look good to the fans in terms of the team’s opening-night line up. The real question will be: what is actually best for the player in the long run?

I can’t recall anyone ever being hurt by spending time in the minors. But I can think of many, many young players who were hurt by being brought up to the big club before their time.

If Kadri is absolutely ‘ready’, I guess he has to stay. But what we don’t want to see is him beginning the season here, then going back to the Marlies. Much better it be the other way around.

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