The Kadri conundrum

Back in November I wrote a blogpost about whether Nazem Kadri’s latest call-up to the big club would be his last.

During that 16 game stint, Kadri scored three in the first four games, then petered out with just 2 points in the last dozen.  Towards the end of January, his impact was minimal and he was all but forgotten. Another opportunity burned.

Maple Leafs management must decide whether gifted offensive 2009 draft pick Nazem Kadri will ever overcome his deficiencies.

Some will argue that his minutes diminished as he was shifted everywhere from the first line to the fourth and ex-coach Ron Wilson didn’t use his high-end though limited skill set to advantage. Yet another example of how the Leafs’ organization can’t develop young talent is how it was framed by Kadri supporters.

Now under a new coach and new system, he was again recalled March 16 along with Marlies’ captain Ryan Hamilton, as an emergency replacement for injured players Clark McArthur and Matt Frattin. With those two cleared for play, Kadri and Hamilton have been shipped back to the Marlies to join their minor league teammates for what is hoped will be a long playoff run.

As Kadri reflects on his latest NHL cameo on his bus ride to Peoria, he can take some comfort in the movie no doubt playing in his head about his weekend with the Maple Leafs.

Now two games is nothing to go by but Kadri played out his usual script. He made another impressive splash with a regulation goal and highlight reel shootout winner against Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur which netted the Leafs a rare, heck, a win, road or otherwise. Had he been invited to stick around and play out the string, I’d be shocked if he continued to make a meaningful contribution. At this stage of his development — nearly three years after being drafted 7th — the frustrating fact is he still isn’t there.

Still, it was as uplifting a moment as you could hope for in a season that’s had precious few for these Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that’s really the crux of it: Kadri is a player of moments. Sometimes, really big moments. Unfortunately there’s far too much time between those displays that’s filled with ordinary if not invisible play; “safe” minutes as Randy Carlyle likes to call them.

And that’s what’s so aggravating about him: How someone with such a scoring touch and gifted hands can’t nail down a roster spot even on a mediocre NHL team. It’s a conundrum to be sure.

The worst of that mediocre play is when he hurts the team with his penchant for turnovers when he tries to do too much himself through the neutral zone. He may deke or split the D in the minors for a flashy goal but those moves generally don’t fly in the big league. It’s basically the reason behind his repeated return trips to Ricoh Coliseum. That and the fact he’s still weak on the puck along the boards, loses too many battles and frankly, just isn’t a threat when he doesn’t have oodles of space and time to work with. When he does, look out — he’s a bonafide sniper.

The question is will that talent ever be allowed to shine in the NHL where opponents are on top of you almost immediately in a game that punishes smaller players. This is still a league for big men.

The challenge is, and has always been, whether he has the desire and fortitude to fight the odds that are stacked against small NHLers. Players like Martin St. Louis, Steve Sullivan and Ben Ennis have in them something special to overcome the the size disadvantage and still shine compared to their larger NHL counterparts.

Does Kadri?

So far, it seems not though progress in developing players is usually incremental, not experienced in leaps and bounds.

As Marlies coach Dallas Eakins says, he has high-end offensive NHL talent that you’d expect from a top draft pick.

He’s only 21. Next year will be his fourth of NHL eligibility. He hasn’t yet found a permanent spot on a team likely to finish in the bottom five.

The six players picked before Kadri in the 2009 draft are all now established NHLers, making major contributions to their clubs on a nightly basis.

It’s time for Kadri to step up or he may have to step aside. There’s lots of talk he could be packaged in a trade for something the Leafs need more: A forward who can stick with the big club and makes a consistent contribution, even if it’s less flashy than one of Kadri’s moments.


About Rolf Sturm

Sportswriter & blogger, news writer, video journalist, photographer, podcaster
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