It’s time for Nazem Kadri to become what Toronto Maple Leafs fans everywhere have dreamed he could for the last three years as the top line centre position is up for grabs.
There may be internal candidates with more experience, size, or speed, but none of those players have what he has. What Kadri supplies is a combination of elite vision, high-end creativity and other worldly hands, which saw him go seventh overall in 2009. This has to be the year where he puts all those elements together to become an offensive force in the NHL for the blue and white.
Over the course of the past two seasons, there have been two things that have kept Nazem out of the NHL, while other players in his draft class have been making an impact around the league. Those two challenges are his size and his defensive play.
Just by looking at Nazem next to Toronto Marlies teammate Matt Frattin, it’s easy to understand the first knock against him. At around six feet tall and 185 pounds, Kadri is not one of the more physically intimidating centres in the NHL. Just take a look at the guy Brian Burke wanted to draft on June 26, 2009.
Brayden Schenn, who was drafted two spots before Kadri, stands just one inch taller and scarcely five pounds heavier than the Leafs’ young pivot. When you put their statistics side by side, you realize Schenn has fared no better statistically than Kadri. In fact, it’s Nazem who has the advantage.
Averaging out their current point totals over an 82-game schedule since neither of them have played 82 career NHL games, Kadri has a slight edge at 30 points/82 games to Schenn’s 26. It’s not offense that has gotten Schenn to the NHL sooner; it’s that he looks and plays bigger, which, for Kadri, a summer of training with Gary Roberts should remedy.
The second reason for Nazem’s plight was his penchant for turnovers and his play without the puck. Enter Dallas Eakins, a defensively minded coach that has supposedly done wonders for Kadri’s defensive acumen and decision making. However, if he hasn’t drastically improved defensively, it may actually be okay. Granted he shouldn’t be an absolute liability, but his primary duty is to produce points.
The last time I checked, the Leafs first line didn’t include two other Selke nominees. Also worth noting, Kadri is minus-two on his NHL career, while Schenn is minus-nine. Go figure.
Overcoming these hurdles is great to talk about, but talk is cheap and Kadri needs to show he can make a difference on the ice. He should be given every opportunity to win the number one centre job, as James van Riemsdyk playing on the second line would better balance the Leafs’ attack. But as we know, come October 13, this could all be a moot point.
With a lockout looming, Kadri may, regardless of improvement, find himself in a Marlies uniform as a casualty of it. A lockout may not be the worst thing for him, as he could further develop his game in a lower pressure environment. However, should he not be given a fair shot or in the event he falls short of expectations again, Nazem needs to be traded before his value is completely nil.
Perhaps he could even be traded to a team like Colorado in a package for restricted free agent centre Ryan O’Reilly, but that’s a different topic for a different day.