RALEIGH, N.C. – Nazem Kadri’s latest attempt to move beyond his reputation as a high-risk, high-reward player is working well so far.
In three games with the Toronto Maple Leafs since his promotion from the American Hockey League, the 21-year-old winger has been all reward. His previous stints since being the Leafs’ seventh overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft proved to be mostly on the risk side, which is why Kadri split his time between the Leafs and the Toronto Marlies for the last two seasons.
However, going into Thursday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Kadri has two goals in three games since his latest promotion. But the real indicator of his progress comes with the ice time granted him by Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who has been Kadri’s most consistent critic.
In his first game playing with centre Tim Connolly and left winger Clarke MacArthur, Kadri had 13 minutes, 43 seconds of playing time. But in two subsequent games, his time went to 15:04 and then 16:16, which matched the praise Wilson gave him after each outing.
“I had some flaws when I first came in the league I realize I had to fix,” Kadri said after Thursday’s game-day skate. “I’ve been working my bag off these past couple years to fix everything I had to.”
The biggest fix, which is still a work in progress, is Kadri’s tendency to cough up the puck in bad spots, often at the opposition blue line, which would start a rush the other way. Kadri was one of the best scorers in the Ontario Hockey League as a junior player because he can dangle with the puck, as the scouts say. But too often those fancy moves would see that puck dangling at the end of his stick slide off into enemy hands.
The biggest difference in his latest stretch with the Leafs, Kadri says, is “just being able to recognize danger and not turn pucks over, being able to know when to take my chances and provide that offence because I look to be an offensive player. I can’t be making stupid decisions that cost the team.”
The credit for this goes to Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, who is starting to attract notice as a candidate to be an NHL head coach thanks to his success in grooming the Leafs’ prospects.
“When I went down the first few games [early this season] I really struggled,” Kadri said. “Dally [Eakins]sat me down and told me what’s what. He didn’t beat around the bush.
“In the couple years I’ve been there he’s helped me drastically. When I did turn the odd puck over, he wouldn’t harp on me. He understands I’m a player who will sometimes turn the puck over and on the other hand make plays as well.”
Another valuable source of advice is Connolly, 30, who has almost 10 years of experience on Kadri.
“That’s the guy I go to if I have any questions,” Kadri said. “He lets me know where to be [on the ice]”
James Reimer will start in goal for the Leafs against the Hurricanes. He is coming off a disastrous appearance in Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers, when he was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots. He said that game is long forgotten.
“I don’t even remember what happened,” Reimer said. “You can’t look back. All you can do is look forward.”
The Hurricanes are shooting for their third consecutive win at home despite injuries to a couple of important players. They will be without forward Jeff Skinner and defenceman Joni Pitkanen, who are both out indefinitely with concussions.
The Leafs will ice the same lineup they did against the Panthers. Here are the line combinations and defence pairs:
Joffrey Lupul-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur-Tim Connolly-Nazem Kadri
Matt Frattin-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin
Darryl Boyce-Dave Steckel-Joey Crabb
Keith Aulie-Dion Phaneuf
Jake Gardiner-Luke Schenn
Carl Gunnarsson-Cody Franson