If the Maple Leafs are determined to give Nazem Kadri all the tools he needs to succeed in the NHL, the flamboyant rookie centre got a pair of nice ones handed to him on Saturday.
For his first practice at training camp, Kadri found himself skating between veteran wingers and significant off-season acquisitions, Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong.
Who knows how long it will last, but such proven linemates will certainly help the transition from junior to the NHL if Kadri makes the best of it.
“They are both great hockey players,” said the Leafs’ first overall pick in 2009, who is expected to seriously battle for a roster spot over the next three weeks. “For the coach to throw them on my wing shows a lot of confidence in me. I’ve just got to go out there and take care of business.”
If the threesome are a bust in their first scrimmage Sunday afternoon or in pre-season games or if Mikhail Grabovski continues on the strong start to camp he had Saturday, who knows where the pieces will fall.
But for now, all three see some upside in Wilson’s early match-making.
“I like it,” said Versteeg, who came here in an off-season trade from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. “You have got a little bit of grit. Colby and I both like to muck it up and Nazem can play a gritty style as well. I think we can feed off each other. We have one of those lines that hopefully won’t get broken up.”
Again, just one practice in Versteeg isn’t about to make long-term plans, but if it turns out one of his early roles with his new team is to nurture a talented prospect like Kadri, he’s game for the challenge.
“I definitely think I could help him along,” Versteeg said. “He’s a young guy who brings a lot of energy and obviously he’s trying to show everybody he deserves to be here. It’s definitely a line I think can have a lot of chemistry and positives with.”
The fact that Armstrong was put with the other two might be a surprise to some, but the former Atlanta Thrasher believes he can play a significant role if given the chance.
“You don’t want to read too much into it, but I just thought it’s a pretty good opportunity for me to play with some good players,” said Armstrong, an off-season free agent acquisition.
“I’ll try to make the best of whoever they put me with. Right now it’s good to be with these two guys. I saw Kris play throughout the playoffs and Nazem, you can see he has a definite skill set. He thinks the game well.”
The progress of Kadri has been monitored closely during the off-season. In part to get him to focus on his on-ice commitments, Kadri was kept away from the media at the recent rookie tournament in London.
Now that the main camp is here, it looks like management is willing to give Kadri a big shot at becoming the team’s second-line centre.
“I think we’re all fighting for jobs here, so let the best man win,” Kadri said. “All the guys don’t want to be playing in the minors, they want to be playing for the real good. We’ve got some good players here and it’s going to be a competition.
“I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time. If I just play my game, things will click. I’ve got two guys on the wings who can skate with me. Hopefully things are moving well.”