This time, it feels different. When Nazem Kadri takes the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres it will mark his fifth recall and it is surely time to let the former first-round draft pick have at it.
Enough tugging on his chain. Enough tough-love. Let’s see if Kadri, who has shown signs in the American Hockey League of figuring out how to use his elite offensive skills against men instead of juniors, can help supply the secondary scoring that the Leafs so dearly lack. If he can’t? Then it’s time to cut bait. The sports world is full of athletes who have needed a change of scenery – sports-writing and punditry is full of cliché nonsense, but the “change of scenery” line isn’t one of them – and it is time to make a call on Kadri.
The Leafs relationship with the seventh choice overall in 2009 has been bizarre, to say the least. Kadri’s first shot at the NHL was the classic example of spirit willing/body failing. He was simply too under-sized for the hurly-burly. No harm or surprise, there. Yet Kadri seemed to get under the skin of the organization, partly because of a tendency toward making grand pronouncements – exacerbated, frankly, by over-exposure of his father Sam in the media - partly because in some quarters his ethnic background was played up to the point where he was taken into “is this the new face of the NHL?” territory. Considering all the effort teams put into getting to know players ahead of the draft, it was almost as if the Leafs acquired Kadri, looked at each other and said: “Ok. Now what?”
It was hard to tell whether Kadri arrived with a true sense of entitlement or whether his personality was simply magnified because of the vacuum created by a dressing room and team in transition. Frankly, there was just so much to do and so much clearing out needed that it cannot have been the perfect environment for a young guy playing in his hometown. Head coach Ron Wilson was still very much in his “weeding out” phase; he didn’t know what to make of Kadri.
Those who followed him in the American Hockey League say Kadri’s elite offensive skills revealed themselves on a nightly basis this season, and Wilson is promising him “a good, long look.” The Leafs have a crying need for secondary scoring and have been on fumes in recent games after a surprising flirtation with first place. Kadri at least brings energy, a necessary first step toward finding that secondary scoring at a time when Nikolai Kulemin has lost the plot offensively and has a narrow focus on keeping up his defensive game until the goals come back. Wilson had Kadri playing on right wing alongside Tim Connolly and Clarke McArthur – Kadri was a centre in the AHL – but Wilson has also been quick to say that placing isn’t carved in stone, that Kadri could find himself playing centre or left wing.
Matching Kadri with Connolly is a good move. People still talk about the concept of “lines” in the NHL but in some ways it is the discovering and nurturing of forward pairings that is at least as important. It is not difficult to see Connolly and Kadri playing well off other – and if Connolly has a spare minute or two, he could certainly give his younger teammate a few pointers on the fickle nature of the NHL and the difficulty that awaits a player who defies expectations in a negative sense. He has first hand experience.
Are the Leafs show-casing Kadri with an eye toward a move after the Christmas trade freeze? Of course they are, in that if the playoff picture remains crowded and clouded it stands to reason that general manager Brian Burke will need to make a move, and it’s hard to imagine there are many untouchables on this team. But first and foremost, they are show-casing Kadri for themselves. It is time to see what they have in Nazem Kadri. No more up and down. Give the kid the keys to the car, and see what shape it’s in when he brings it home.