Nazem Kadri could light up the Detroit Red Wings with a hat trick Friday night in Motown, but he will still have to walk across the hall at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility next week and take a seat in the Toronto Marlies dressing room.
That decision was made some time ago by Leafs general manager Brian Burke, head coach Ron Wilson and the rest of the NHL team's brain trust. When Kadri finally showed a thing or two in training camp with three points in a win over the Ottawa Senators the other night, it did not change anything, other than to reassure some nervous fans the kid does have the ability to play in the show.
Despite all the nattering in the media, Kadri's ticket for the Marlies and the American Hockey League is punched. The only reason he is playing Friday in Detroit in the Leafs' penultimate preseason game is that winger Clarke MacArthur has a nagging groin injury. And it's a good thing, too.
Keeping Kadri makes sense only if he outplayed either of the Leafs' top two centres, Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski. As a 19-year-old first-round draft pick, Kadri's destiny is to be a first or second centre. Since he cannot unseat one of the incumbents, he is far better off learning how to be a top-six forward in the minor leagues rather than trying to kill penalties and be a checking centre on the Leafs' third or fourth lines.
If you do not think so, look no further than Bozak. One year ago, he was a ballyhooed 23-year-old college free agent who had a good training camp, even better than Kadri, who played much better then than he is now, although a spot on the Leafs for Kadri last year was not in the cards.
Like Kadri, Bozak was a smallish centre who had to learn how to play defensively in the NHL. The best place to do that was with the Marlies, even if he did run up five points in six preseason games with the Leafs a year ago. Bozak had to endure a long illness in his first professional season but rebounded to learn his trade well enough for a midseason promotion to the Leafs, where he had 27 points in 37 games.
"It made him a far better player by the end of the year," Wilson said of Bozak's stint with the Marlies.
Kadri said on Thursday he is preparing himself for both possibilities to start the season, but hopes he will stick with the Leafs. For the sake of his career, Kadri had better not spend too much time moping when the inevitable happens and get on with his apprenticeship.
A slightly more interesting battle at centre is on the Leafs' third line between Tim Brent, 26, who has bounced around the NHL and the minors before surprising everyone in this year's camp, and John Mitchell. This fight is also practically decided, with Brent having a firm grip on the job.
Mitchell's problem is that he is entering his third season with the Leafs and still has not established himself as either a scoring or checking centre. With Christian Hanson holding down the job as the fourth-line centre, the only hope Mitchell, 25, has of sticking will be as an extra forward who will spend a lot of time in the press box.
"The challenge for John Mitchell is, will he accept that role [as a checker] and will he play well defensively?" Wilson said. "He hasn't shown the skill that he [needs]to be on the top two lines."
The coach added that Mitchell is actually a good penalty killer but has trouble defensively in even-strength situations.
Speaking of done deals, veteran defenceman Jeff Finger will appear in his first preseason game in Detroit after recovering from a knee injury. But that is only because Luke Schenn has a sore back. Finger and his $3.5-million (U.S.) salary are still headed for the waiver wire and the Marlies, in that order, to clear up room under the salary cap.
"That's the name of the game," Finger said. "This business is cutthroat."