|Nikolai Kulemin gets past Guillaume Lefebvre in Pre-Season action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. (Dave Abel/Sun Media)
TORONTO — As long as Nazem Kadri is up with the Maple Leafs, he can expect more than adequate protection from Ron Wilson’s not-so-secret service.
Kadri, the club’s No. 1 draft pick and perhaps a first-line centre in coming years, had Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau on his flanks Wednesday against the Boston Bruins.
He’ll likely get the same kind of bodyguards Thursday in London when he plays in front of more of his clan and his extended junior Knights family with the restive Philadelphia Flyers in town.
“As a young guy coming into this league, it is a little nerve-wracking for me,” Kadri said before last night. “But with Orr and Primeau, I’m sure I have nothing to worry about.
“It’s better for me to be with two guys who’ve played in the league before, who know what to expect, who know how to handle things, to build some early chemistry.”
Kadri is not made of glass at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but his coaches have tended to take the cautious approach with picking his linemates.
“In Kitchener (two seasons ago), I had Mike Duco, who was pretty feared in the league and last year I had guys like Zac Rinaldo, Leigh Salters, Mike Yovanic,” Kadri said. “It opens up the ice for you and they’re willing to sacrifice their bodies for you and the team.”
Unlike defenceman Luke Schenn, who was considered NHL-ready almost before getting to his first camp last year, the Leafs were making no such fuss about Kadri. They wanted to get him in some early exhibitions before a planned return to the OHL Knights.
That was until he excelled at the rookie tournament and then in the first few days of the main camp, prompting Wilson to start talking about him as a possible opening night starter, albeit “a long shot.”
“One step at a time,” Kadri said. “This will be a big one against Boston. If I want to compete with these (other NHL teams), I’m going to have to prove I can play here.”
Veteran defencemen Garnet Exelby and Jeff Finger were hoping to impress Wilson for a different reason than Kadri last night, trying to get the inside track on the fifth, sixth or seventh job on the blueline with five or six candidates in all.
“I try not to think about that, just go out and do the things that brought me to where I am, play physical,” Exelby said. “It will be nice to beat up on some players you won’t probably be playing against this year (the Leafs were discouraged from fighting or roughing up each other in camp).”
But Exelby said he wouldn’t hesitate to help any rookies calm themselves as they made their NHL debuts this week.
“If I see someone shaking, I’ll go over and sit beside them and tell them to take a couple of deep breaths. This is the same game we’ve all been playing since we were young; maybe a little faster and the guys are bigger.
“For the most part, they’ll find it’s easier. Guys are more responsible and in position. Take that extra second for composure and you’ll find you can make that easy play.”