|Nazem Kadri attended his first training camp scrimmage with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images/AFP)
TORONTO - The 30 feet from their own goal to the blue line can be a Bermuda Triangle for young NHL stars.
Gifted junior scorers who won't pay heed to defence in their zone can disappear quickly from the pro radar and that's an area Nazem Kadri must learn to better navigate.
In his first training camp scrimmage with the Maple Leafs on Sunday, the first-round pick and potential second-line centre found it a struggle at times to break out, despite playing half the game with proven wingers Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong.
"No one should expect me to dominate right off the start and control the puck like I've been in the league four or five years." Kadri said. "I'm a young guy and I have a lot to learn from all the other vets. The important thing is, get progressively better and better each day. Here, you're dealing with men, you've got guys with full grown moustaches."
Versteeg scored a couple of goals yesterday, but Kadri was not party to either in a quiet game overall.
But the trio will likely be back together Monday in the final day of scrimmages or in one of this week's five exhibition games. Coach Ron Wilson was not going to give Kadri a harsh critique after just one big-league skate, but won't tolerate repeated errors.
"He's very focused on his offence right now, but when you first come into the league you're never going to be as successful as your potential and you're going to have to learn how to play in your end," Wilson said. "That's going to be part of the process with him. The most important thing he has to get down in pre-season games is that he's not going to be a negative defensively. I hope he picks up on what we do quickly.
"He was allowed to do a lot of things (as a 93-point star with the OHL's London Knights) and the better juniors often find they don't understand the game defensively. It hasn't been hammered into them. You have to learn how to play without the puck, especially if you're a centre."
To his credit, Kadri has been trying to improve that part of his repertoire for a couple of seasons.
"I think last year getting sent back to junior, that's one thing I really have to focus on," Kadri said. "I want to be a two-way player and in the NHL, you can get burned really quick if you don't have your stick on the ice or your head up. It's pretty fast and you have to have your head on a swivel."
A shortage of wingers saw Kadri play some shifts with two or three less gifted players on Sunday, but it was a good move by Wilson to insulate him with Versteeg an Armstrong, who can score, check and be bodyguards.
"He's a kid that's going to learn," said Versteeg. "He has all the tools, now he has to show he can make the team.
"You don't often see a centreman make a jump (right from junior) and if you do, it's often as a winger, such as (ex-Chicago teammate) Patrick Kane. It will be an adjustment, but he has to learn to deal with his own end, then get into the offensive end and work hard."
Versteeg received some excellent reviews for his day's work. Wilson appreciates that the long road to Stanley Cup heaven did not leave much time for summer vacation, which is why Versteeg chose to spend a few extra weeks in Alberta instead of joining the Leafs' summer workouts. Until arriving, he had only skated with a men's league team.
"If he scores two a game, that's 164 goals," Wilson joked. "Anything less than that, I'll be very disappointed.
"Kris has got a nose for the net. He'll probably have more opportunities here in terms of ice time, the way (Chicago) is compared to ours. As things stand, he's in great shape, when you consider the hectic summer he had. He hadn't put a lot of work in. but he's determined to help us take the same type of step as he helped Chicago."