Well, when the Leafs take the ice for training camp in about 6 weeks, there are going to be a number of young players hoping to make their mark and secure a full-time spot in the NHL. Of the Leaf prospects that will likely attend the camp, there’s at least a few that should have at least hope, if not expectation of securing a roster spot. Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin headline the list, but I’ll be keeping my eyes on guys like Jerry D’Amigo, Jesse Blacker, Jake Gardiner, Keith Aulie (yes, I still consider him somewhat of a prospect), Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Tyler Brenner, Luca Caputi, Kenny Ryan and Ben Scrivens as well.
We’ll start with Kadri, since he’s the most notable, and therefore, subject to the most criticism and scrutiny of any current Leaf prospect. The 20-year old posted just 12 points in 29 games last season, much to the dismay of the over-enthusiastic fans that were convinced he was going to step right into the Leafs’ roster and make an immediate impact. However, the most impressive thing about Kadri last season was the way we got to see his game change so dramatically from his first stint with the big club to his second opportunity late in the year.
After failing to make the roster out of training camp, Kadri got his first crack at a semi-regular NHL shift midway through November during one of the worst losing streaks of the Leafs’ season. He didn’t register a goal in over a month spent with the Leafs, and was demoted back to the Marlies before the start of 2011. He didn’t play with any real physical edge – not that you’d expect the second coming of Wendel Clark from a kid who’s lucky if he tips the scales past 180 lbs – and was unable to translate the flashy offensive game that earned him such high recognition during his junior hockey days into becoming a realistic scoring threat in the NHL. Alot of that had to do with the fact that Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak weren’t exactly the greatest top-line colleagues for the youngster, but his general all-around ineffectiveness rightfully earned him another stint in the AHL with coach Dallas Eakins and the Marlies.
Midway through March, with the Leafs miraculously in the thick of the race for the 8th and final playoff spot, Kadri was called up once again, this time with much better results. Kadri wasn’t forced to play top-line minutes, and, subsequently wasn’t targeted by top-tier defensemen, and turned in a much better effort, finishing with 3 goals and 3 assists in 11 games before the season’s end. Not included in that tally were a couple of beauty shootout winners against Vezina winner Timmy Thomas, and the fact that he no longer looked out of place. Skating primarily on the 3rd line, Kadri was no longer a huge liability, no longer tried to dangle his way out of his own zone, and looked much more comfortable in general, letting the game develop around him rather than forcing things that he certainly must have gotten used to while dominating opponents in the OHL.
Now, all that’s well and good, but what can we expect from this kid in 2011-12. Well, for starters, from the talks he’s had with the press so far this summer, it sounds like he’s got a pretty decent-sized chip on his shoulder, and will be out to prove he’s the real deal. Obviously, he’s still one of the smaller guys on the club, but in today’s NHL, with the game as fast as it is, you don’t have to be a monster to be effective. I read somewhere the other day that we can probably expect Kadri to take on a similar role to Kris Versteeg, when he played for the Blackhawks during their Cup run – a legitimate offensive option on the 3rd line, while providing capable two way play and contributing consistently on the powerplay. Versteeg obviously has a bit more skill in the defensive element of his game, but I think Kadri has more offensive upside. Even so, Versteeg managed to score 42 goals and 97 points during his first two full seasons with the Blackhawks – if Kadri were to put up a 20-goal, 40-45 point season, the Leafs would be in great shape.
A 3rd unit of Kadri-Bozak-Armstrong would certainly be an upgrade over anything the Leafs have iced in years prior, and with Bozak playing a more defensive role, I think we’d get a chance to see him reach more of his true potential, while Armstrong would be the perfect mix of grit, decent playmaking and offense to complement the two youngsters. There’s also the possibility that Kadri comes out and absolutely lights it up in training camp and makes a play for a spot on the top line with Tim Connolly and Kessel, but I think Joffrey Lupul’s size and need to prove that he’s still a legit top-six forward will preclude Kadri from doing so.
In the end, that may be for the best, as a defensively sound 3rd line that has the ability to produce a somewhat significant level of offense is a rare and yet, very necessary commodity in today’s NHL. It would also force Kadri to continue to work on the defensive elements of his game, while being sheltered against some of his own inevitable mistakes by two pretty solid defensive forwards. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it now, Kadri will scored at least 15 goals this season, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t pot 20, just like Versteeg.