Kadri finally gets his shot

Nazem Kadri shows up for Maple Leafs practice at the MasterCard Centre. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

Nazem Kadri shows up for Maple Leafs practice at the MasterCard Centre. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:38 PM ET

Nazem Kadri’s journey back to the big leagues began with a three-hour drive in the middle of the night from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Syracuse.

After three hours of what was surely a restless sleep, there was a 5:30 wakeup call to catch a flight to Toronto in time for Friday’s Maple Leafs practice at the MasterCard Centre.

An hour and 37 minutes after skating alongside new linemates Tyler Bozak and Nik Kulemin, the rookie took a deep breath, slid off his skates and let it all soak in.

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for about a month and a half now,” said the 20-year-old first-round pick, who was promoted from the AHL Marlies along with defenceman Keith Aulie on Friday. “I’m glad I got it now. I felt I’ve been working hard and I’m ready to go.”

He’s been waiting a lot longer than that, of course.

Drafted seventh overall in 2009, he was crushed when sent back to junior a year ago. After underachieving at training camp this September, he was sent to Marlies and, just 14 games later, with the father club foundering, Kadri has been summoned to help out.

Was it deserved or an act of desperation? Probably a bit of both as the Leafs need to find something to help halt a seven-game losing streak and 10 losses in their past 11.

“In an ideal world, if we had won a few of the last games, we would have given him a bit longer, but he has made the adjustments we’ve asked him to make,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. “Maybe he hasn’t perfected them, but he’s improved dramatically.

“We’re not looking for him to be a saviour. We’re looking for him to be a spark.”

As long as he doesn’t fall flat on his face, it sounds as if Kadri will be given every opportunity to succeed, including time on the power play. It isn’t a one-game shot either with no guillotine hanging over his head, as Burke put it.

Borne out of what was, no doubt, a sickening feeling following Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to Florida, Burke and right-hand man Dave Nonis decided changes were needed.

Upon consulting with Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, Kadri and Aulie, a strapping defensive prospect the Leafs have high hopes for, were given the call following the AHL team’s Thursday night game against Adirondack.

After struggling in training camp, Kadri was demoted to work on his play away from the puck. It took some tough love at times from Eakins, but apparently the former London Knight has developed enough that his bosses feel he won’t be defensive liability.

In his final three games in the minors, Kadri had a goal and four assists and was a solid plus-5.

“I wanted to focus on my defensive end and playing away from the puck,” Kadri said. “I think that’s really sunk into my memory and now that I have it indented in there in bold and italics, I think I’m going to bring it up to the NHL and hopefully can stick here.”

Kadri will begin his first serious stint as a Leaf — he had a one-game cameo last year — playing on the left wing. A centre in junior, the Leafs don’t want to overload him with the responsibilities that come with that position, even though the team is desperately thin there.

“He’s been playing the wing (with the Marlies) and if he’s going to crack our lineup, it would be on the wing,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We want to surround Nazzy with detail people so that he can show us what he can do offensively with the puck.”

The promotion of Kadri led to another major line shuffling at Leafs practice on Friday, though nothing is carved in stone.

The first line now consists of Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur. Notable in the makeup of the first two units is the fact that there is a physical presence on each — MacArthur on one and Kulemin on the other.

Kadri’s latest debut will come under the bright lights of Hockey Night In Canada in an all-Canadian matchup against the Vancouver Canucks. Never shy of the spotlight, the team expects Kadri to take it all in stride.

“He’s been a star in this country for three years,” Burke said. “I think he’s used to it. That’s part of being a Toronto Maple Leaf. This is a focal point and these games attract a lot of attention. He’s going to have to deal with that, whether it’s today or two weeks from now.”

Kadri acknowledged Friday that the more the big team struggled, the more he hoped he would get his chance. And defensive improvements be damned, his job is to help get the NHL’s second worst offence get the puck in the net.

“I have high expectations on myself,” said Kadri, who will wear No. 43 on Saturday night. “I’m looking to exceed those expectations and help get this team on the right track.

“They brought me here to give this team some offensive spark and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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