After 3 1/2 years of trying to push open the door to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, Nazem Kadri saw head coach Randy Carlyle open it wide for him on Thursday.
The signal came shortly before noon when word drifted out of the Maple Leafs’ practice at the Air Canada Centre that Tim Connolly, 31, was placed on NHL waivers. That came the morning after the Leafs traded another veteran centre, Matthew Lombardi, to the Phoenix Coyotes for a conditional draft pick.
By the end of the Leafs’ practice, held in front of several thousand fans as a make-up gesture following the lockout, it was clear the job of third-line centre is Kadri’s to lose. The moves also created room for another youngster, Matt Frattin, on the team, possibly on the third line with Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, although Leo Komarov appears to have the lead on that job.
The fate of all three plus the other 20 players on the Leafs’ roster will be determined by 5 p.m., Friday, the deadline for NHL teams to get down to the 23-man limit.
“This is what I want and what I worked so hard for,” Kadri, 22, said. He struggled to establish himself as an NHLer since being taken seventh overall in the 2009 entry draft, putting up just 19 points in 51 games with the Leafs.
But after playing well in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies during the lockout, Kadri hit the ice at full speed last Sunday when the Leafs opened their training camp.
“You look at Kadri and I think he’s proven, as I said before, he has NHL skills and can provide an NHL-level of offence,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “That is a question mark, whether he’ll do it consistently.
“He’s been one of our strongest players in camp from an offensive standpoint, the competitiveness he displays, and we’d be crazy not to recognize the strengths he has.”
Carlyle made it clear, in the absence of enough players to form a shutdown line, he is looking at forming a third line that will contribute to the offence rather than the checking game. He’s actually made up his mind, but he isn’t ready to make it official ahead of Saturday’s season-opener in Montreal against the Canadiens.
“It’s in my mind already. It’s done,” Carlyle said, and then he laughed. “I’m not going to tell you.”
Maybe not, but if it isn’t Kadri between Komarov on the left and van Riemsdyk on the right then a lot of practice time was wasted. Given van Riemsdyk’s size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and ability to score goals along with Kadri’s slickness with the puck and Komarov’s potential as a two-way player, the possibilities of this line are intriguing. It could score as much or more than some NHL second lines.
“The shutdown line is something you develop when you feel you have the personnel to go in and play against the top lines in the league,” Carlyle said. “If you’re not afforded that personnel, you look for the offensive side of it and say you have three lines that can produce a certain level of offence and maybe other teams don’t have that.”
At this point, where Frattin will fit in on either the third or fourth line is not clear. If Carlyle elects not to go with an enforcer and cuts Colton Orr, then Frattin has a job on the team. He could displace Komarov on the third line but has not shown enough in camp to force the issue.
Frattin played 56 games with the Leafs as a rookie last season, getting only 15 points. But he was one of the Marlies’ best players in the AHL playoffs last spring before sustaining a knee injury. He started well with the Marlies in the fall but fell off in the last couple of weeks, finishing with 16 points in 20 games.
“[Frattin] has had some good days and not-so-good days,” Carlyle said of his play in camp this week. “If he’s not physical he’s not effective and that’s where he was dominant at [the AHL] level.”
Connolly, signed to a two-year, $9-million (U.S.) contract in July of 2011 as a potential No. 1 centre, was a disappointment from the start. After a mere 36 points last season, he sealed his fate by playing poorly in camp this week.