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Kadri: Will the Leaf brass move too soon? Patience, patience

Three “losses” (really two; one was in overtime) doesn’t mean much in the NHL nowadays.  There is so much parity, especially in the East, that most teams look alike.  Everyone seems to have these mini-streaks.  Win a few, lose a few.

In Toronto, just as the euphoria clicks in early after a couple of wins, so does the panic button after a few losses.  “Here we go again” is often the natural response from fans, who are quite rightly jammed up by the fact that we have seen this movie too many times, especially over the past few seasons.  There is always the fear that this team, despite all the changes and apparent improvements, will slide back into all-too-familiar—and losing—patterns.

The goaltending is supposed to be better, but has anyone checked Giguerre's save percentage?  The defense has been generally good, not allowing a lot of goals until the loss to the Flyers.  But Phaneuf, the leader, is minus 5 already.  Are they (the "top six"), as Burke has said, really the best top-six in the NHL?

And the forwards. The team needs offense, right?  Well, with young Kadri suddenly “hot” (for one game, at least, though the Marlies then struggled on Sunday against Grand Rapids) with the Marlies, the answer seems right around the corner—or in the case of the Leafs' AHL affiliate, just down the street at the Ricoh Coliseum.

And it is true, when you actually look at the “stats”, the Leafs have received goal scoring from just two main sources: Kessel (expected) and MacArthur (not expected).  Yes, the team needs “secondary scoring”, as I posted the other day, but maybe as importantly, they need “primary” scoring from guys expected to make a contribution:  Versteeg, Bozak, Kulemin and Grabovski.  (Except for Grabovski, it may not be fair to have such high expectations of the other three at such a young age, but they are the best offensive guys the Leafs have.)

Here is a question, maybe the obvious one:  Burke reiterated, when Kadri was assigned to the Marlies at the end of training camp and pre-season, that he wasn’t ready for the NHL.  Burke made it clear (again) that when Kadri is, he will need to be prepared to be a “number two” center.

Well, right now, Grabovski has that job.  After seven games, Grabbo is a “plus 5” player, though he has only earned four assists, with nary a goal.  Does Kadri take that spot?

If so, does that make Grabovski a third-line player?  Does he have that particular “checker” skill set needed to play that position?

And that would likely bump Brent back down to the Marlies.  Brent has done what the Leafs have asked him to do, and Wilson went to great lengths before the season started to say that, “I don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen”, when Brent is on the ice.

Zigomanis sat out against the Flyers, though he is hardly the “problem”.  He has been one of the more industrious Leafs through a more difficult past few games, after the early jump start.

If Kadri comes up to be the third-line center, the question is, does he have the traits needed to play that defensively responsible position?  More than skill (which he has in abundance), it may be more a question of attitude, grit and experience.

So here is the potential answer, I suppose.  Kadri could be called up to play the wing position, which he did in that pre-season game in Ottawa when he scored a couple of goals and did not look out of place.

For his part, Versteeg has struggled a bit in the early going and is more naturally, it seems to me, a second-line winger.  He might be able to work nicely with Kulemin (who I need to see more from, given my building expectations after last season) and Grabovski.  I would consider moving Kulemin to the first line, but I don’t think his play so far has merited a promotion.

If Kadri played the wing, this would put Brent (if he stayed) between MacArthur and Armstrong.  Sounds good.  But where does that leave Sjostrom, your best penalty-killer?

For me, the answer right now is to play with the team you left camp with.  Let Kadri continue to progress with the Marlies.  When the time is right (injuries, lack of production on the big team over an extended period) and there is a real need—not an early season panic requirement—give him his real taste of NHL play.

To me, Kadri needs to be beyond ready, so that when he arrives he never has to go back down to the minors.  And I’m not sure, if he wasn’t “ready” in the brass’ mind two weeks ago, that he is suddenly ready now.

One last thing:  you can bet Wilson, when all these permutations are raised, will say it’s typical of the local media to over-react and suggest changes.  He may bristle publicly at suggestions the team has slipped a bit, though he clearly feels that way himself.  But the reality is that you can also bet that Burke and company will themselves be considering their options, albeit limited, in the days to come, if the Leafs lose another game or play poorly in their next game.

Struggling Florida may be the tonic on Tuesday night, to halt, for the time being, any persistent anxiety about the roster.

Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey blog  

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