Since he was drafted, Leaf fans have been waiting, some patiently, some impatiently, the emergence of Nazem Kadri as a full-time NHLer. He bounced back and forth between the Leafs and Marlies for most of last season before sticking with the big club during most of their late season playoff push. This year, he was shown up by the strong preseason of Matt Frattin, whose game was a bit more NHL-ready at the beginning of the season. He was sent back to the Dallas Eakins’ preparatory academy and seems to have benefited marvelously from the 22 games he spent in the AHL this season.
Playing at a point-per-game pace, Kadri earned himself a trip to the AHL All-Star Game, but thankfully for him, he won’t be in attendance, since he is showing no signs of leaving the Leafs any time soon. He’s survived the latest round of demotions with Mike Brown and Matthew Lombardi returning to the lineup, and the transformation in his game has nearly been completed. The biggest complaints with Kadri all along were the over-abundance of turnovers he created, mainly at inopportune areas on the ice (either blueline). His defensive responsibility was more of a liability than anything else, and while he’ll never be accused of being a defensive stalwart, you can’t play in this league without being capable defensively.
This time around, he’s still got all the attractions that we’ve come to expect from the offensively gifted youngster: great passing, exceptional vision on the ice, some of the slickest hands you’ll see just about anywhere and a strong competitive streak. (According to Dallas Eakins, he’s the most competitive player he’s ever coached) What he’s not doing is giving the puck up by forcing difficult plays. He’s finally seemed to realize what will and and won’t fly at this level, and what inspired me to put this together was the way he handled himself against the veteran Red Wings on Saturday night.
A number of times, Kadri carried the puck out of his own zone and through the neutral zone before running into any one of the solid blueliners that man the back end for Detroit. In the past, Kadri probably would have tried to dangle his way through an All-Star. Instead, what we saw Saturday night on numerous occasions was responsible play – dumping the puck cross-corner or rolling it in behind the net from the neutral zone, helping his linemates finish their changes and ensuring that he himself didn’t get caught up ice.
Obviously, he’s not a complete package just yet. He’s still a bit undersized for my liking, but not everyone can be 6’2, 200 lbs, and a comparison I heard used about him the other day was to Mike Ribeiro - smallish, speedy, talented scorer/playmaker that has developed into a pretty consistent 20-goal scorer. He won’t score 20 goals this season, but he should be able to grab himself somewhere in the range of 10-15 goals and 25-30 points. If he can continue to contribute as he has, the best thing he does is give the Leafs 3 competent scoring units, something they’ll need to take full advantage of if they hope to make a serious playoff run in today’s NHL.
This year may not be his breakout season, but Brian Burke has a history of bringing high-end prospects along relatively slowly, and so far, it seems to have worked out quite well for him. At this point, I get the feeling that Kadri’s development has the best chance to continue at a high level with him playing for the Leafs. That’s not to say that he may or may not get another brief stint in the AHL as the Leafs get healthy again, but that’s more of a product of organizational depth than an indication of his talent level. While he will certainly have more opportunities to make it impossible for management to send him back down, it seems to me that he’s already well on his way to doing so.