For once, the Toronto Maple Leafs must hope Nazem Kadri's self-assessment is accurate.
Now more than ever the Maple Leafs need him to make the jump to an elite NHL centre by the time he hits his 24th birthday in 10 days. Once again, an off-season passed without the team adding the clear-cut No. 1 centre it's needed for years.
There were the usual salary-cap difficulties, of course, and a top-10 NHL centre is about as easy to find as intelligence in reality television, but the lack of an all-out search can be seen as a vote of confidence in Kadri. Now entering his third full NHL season, there is no doubt Kadri has the skill to be an elite centre. It's the other necessities – judgment, defensive awareness and the will to play as the opposition ramps up the duress – that need work.
Not to worry, Leafs fans – Kadri said earlier this week he's on it: "Yeah, I do feel like I can be that person. Each year I think I'm going to get better and better. My progression's been pretty solid."
Well, his coaches may quibble with that. A lot of those 50 points last season – a nice number on the face of it for a second-year player – did not come when it really mattered. But self-esteem has never been a problem for Kadri. With the way the fight for jobs at centre is turning out, though, the Leafs do need Kadri's words to match his performance this season. The Leafs will play their fourth preseason game (if you count the split-squad games against the Ottawa Senators as one) Friday night in Buffalo against the Sabres and it's already clear who the four centres will be when the season starts Oct. 8.
Petri Kontiola, 29, the veteran Finn who bought his own way out of the Kontinental Hockey League to try the NHL after a five-year absence, is the odd man out. He simply can't keep up to the NHL pace, leaving Peter Holland and Mike Santorelli to merely fight it out for which one plays on the third line and which gets the fourth. Any hoped-for push to keep Kadri on his toes failed to materialize.
Kontiola was not among the 13 cuts announced by the Leafs on Thursday, which brought the roster down to 41 players: 25 forwards, 12 defencemen and four goaltenders. But Kontiola will have to find some pixie dust to sprinkle on his leaden feet to have any hope of being one of the final 14 forwards.
If the Leafs are to avoid yet another collapse down the stretch and make the playoffs, Kadri has to drive up the contributions from the secondary scorers. Bumping Tyler Bozak as the No. 1 centre is not the issue.
While Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle raised some eyebrows at the start of camp by musing about breaking up his first line by playing left winger James van Riemsdyk, who is dynamite so far, with Kadri, the status quo remains the best bet. Phil Kessel is happiest playing with his buddy Bozak and he developed a solid rapport with van Riemsdyk.
The Leafs need Kadri to anchor a second line that can approach the top unit in production. All that has to happen for that is left winger Joffrey Lupul stays healthy, the coaches figure out who will be the best fit at right wing and Kadri works well enough with his eventual linemates to get into the 70-point range. Simple, eh?
David Clarkson is sort of pencilled in as that line's right winger, but an injury is preventing us from seeing if he might be able to shake off his miserable first season with the Leafs and be the digger for Kadri and Lupul. The other candidates also come with caveats. David Booth was once a 30-goal scorer but not in a long time thanks to injuries. Matt Frattin has speed and a nose for goals but is still figuring out how to be an NHLer.
Kadri has played well so far with various wingers but against second-rate opposition. The real test starts Sunday when the Leafs play the first of their last three preseason games. Teams use most of what they see as their regular-season lineup at that point, so that will show if Kadri plays as well as he talks.