|Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots the puck past Philadelphia Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Brian Burke has ignited his share of media fire storms over the years, but not once during the 2009 NHL entry draft did the crusty Leafs GM ever proclaim that Nazem Kadri, the club’s first overall pick, was going to lead the Maple Leafs to the promised land.
Nor did he ever use the word “phenom” in describing his seventh overall pick.
So why is everyone getting so excited?
The bottom line is this, despite the anxiety and hype surrounding Kadri’s supposedly sub-par performance at training camp and in the pre-season, the former London Knights star is probably right where the organization expected him to be — fighting for a job as a top two or three centre with the rebuilding Leafs.
Yes, Kadri’s stats are down from last year’s training camp, when he posted three goals and two assists in six games and had all of Leafs Nation bouncing off the walls, but it should be noted that Kadri was under a lot less stress last season — fully expecting to be sent back down to junior, which allowed him to play a free-wheeling style of hockey. This season Kadri is under the thumb to improve the defensive part of his game and he’s made a concerted effort to do just that. When you concentrate on your own end, the numbers frequently fall — until a balance is found. And that often takes some time.
Kadri is a minus-1 in two games (though he scored a nifty goal in a shootout on Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers), and has appeared a bit overwhelmed at times. But he’s also been pretty good at times and none of the team’s centres have been great.
With apologies to Mad Magazine, here are some snappy answers to some stupid questions concerning everything Nazem Kadri.
Q: Has Kadri looked nervous, overwhelmed and lacking confidence?
A: Perhaps at times, but he’s 19, playing in the biggest hockey market in the world. Who wouldn’t be nervous? On the other hand, the kid exudes nothing but confidence off the ice.
“I know the points will come, the goals will come. I’m really not worried about that,” Kadri told the Toronto Sun. “My play away from the puck — in the D zone, my faceoffs — all those things are getting better and better. But I know I have the skill to be an offensive powerhouse. But it’s a two-way game, and that’s where I want to be.”
Q: Does it look bad on the organization if he starts the season with the Marlies?
A: Hell no. The kid was selected seventh overall, not first. He was never thought of as a franchise player, despite the attention he receives in Toronto. Besides, Burke is a big proponent of young players learning their trade in the AHL.
Q: Are the Leafs putting too much pressure on Kadri?
A: Absolutely not. Ron Wilson is always taking heat for throwing his players under the bus. But in this case, all the coach has been saying is, Kadri needs to earn a place on the team, learn how to play in his own zone and learn how to compete at the NHL level. You want the Leafs to coddle the kid? It’s not the organization’s fault that Toronto is a crazed hockey market, which swallows young players whole and spits them out. But Kadri seems like a kid with a good head on his shoulders, a kid who embraces the chance to play in the centre of the hockey universe.
“Other guys can play here, why can’t I? Yes, you’re always under the microscope here,” Kadri said. “But that can be a good thing, because you’ve got so many supporters. To be able to throw on the Leafs jersey is a huge honour.”
Q: Has Kadri been out-performed by most other centres at camp?
A: Negative. First-line centre Tyler Bozak has played okay, and Mikhail Grabovski looks better this year than he did last, but after that, it’s a bit of a turkey shoot. Christian Hanson has had his moments and John Mitchell has been less than mind-blowing. Some of the soon-to-be-re-assigned players have looked decent — particularly Greg McKegg, Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis — but no one up the middle has turned any heads, meaning that the door is still wide open. Kadri won’t bump first-line centre Bozak off his perch. But he can beat out anyone else.
Q: Will Kadri wilt under the expectations of Leafs Nation?
A: Doubtful. Leafs fans are smart enough to realize that Kadri is not the second coming of Wayne Gretzky. He’s a talented young player who has a chance to be a point-producing NHLer, and that’s it.