|Leafs forward Tim Brent is closer than ever to making it in the NHL. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)
TORONTO - Who has more staying power to be a Maple Leaf, the first-round pick or the last player to be called up in 2009-10?
Nazem Kadri says he's not fazed by the public flogging he has taken from his general manager and coach, but there's a guy named Tim Brent who is emerging as perhaps the biggest obstacle to Kadri staying with the big team when the regular season begins next week.
Kadri could be down to his last strike as soon as Wednesday when coach Ron Wilson indicated -- but didn't promise -- the teen would play in Ottawa, where he will try to put himself back on the map. At the same time, Wilson said Monday's lineup against Buffalo was very close to the finished product, with Kadri sitting and Brent centring the third line.
Wilson talked up Brent Monday morning, at the same time tossing another dart at Kadri, the Leafs' top pick in 2009, who was given fair warning by GM Brian Burke the day before that he was slipping in the rankings.
"Timmy's played very well and deserves to be in the lineup," Wilson said.
"So far, we're very pleased with him. Some lines are in ink and others are in pencil.
"(Kadri) has had lots of opportunities to make an impression and we'll try and get him another one (in Ottawa). He has to realize the situation he's in and get the job done, not talk his way out of it with how he's played so far. He has to actually do it."
Kadri's tendency to talk the talk, but not walk the walk, is apparently one of the things bugging Burke and Wilson, who at one point tried to keep him away from the daily media scrum during the club's rookie tournament in London, Ont. After looking suspect defensively in Buffalo on Saturday night, Kadri insisted he was grasping the nuances of the game.
But the 93-point London Knights' star must be admired for being candid, both in his belief he can make the team and how he plans to respond to getting zinged by his bosses.
"You can't just melt when someone criticizes you," Kadri said after he and fellow bubble-boy centre John Mitchell completed their tough skate with the scrubs who were excluded from the Buffalo game. "It comes with the territory of being a first-round pick. You're under the microscope. It doesn't affect my mental toughness. That was something (ingrained) in me very early in my career. When I get harped on, it doesn't affect me, if anything it motivates me more. All this will do is make me better."
There was off-season hope -- and none of it misplaced -- that if the Leafs did not acquire a No. 1 centre through trade or free agency, Kadri had as much of a chance as Tyler Bozak to be that guy, certainly be in the hunt for second line and if he were as good as Mikhail Grabovski, perhaps third line. But Bozak and Grabovski played their way into the 1-2 spots, Christian Hanson is close to getting the fourth-line job and now it's a Kadri-Mitchell-Brent playoff after Sunday's 17 cuts reduced the roster to 30.
Brent is closer than ever to his dream of being a regular. after getting a taste in Game 82 last April in Montreal as a call-up from the Marlies. He was a second-round Anaheim draft pick in 2002 and signed with the Leafs as a free agent in 2009. That Montreal game was his 19th in the NHL after stops with the Ducks and Blackhawks from 2006 onwards. But Brent wants to see where he stands after this weekend.
"A lot of good hockey players are still here," the Cambridge native said. "It's down to a few guys now, but at the same time, you have to bring it every night and make it hard in the coaching staff. That's the focus I've had, make it hard on them to send me down or take me out.
"I seem to come pretty close every year (to making the NHL), up to the last couple of guys. I just couldn't get over the hump."
Last year's promotion, on the morning after the Marlies played Rochester, changed the picture for Brent, who rededicated himself in the weight room. Listed at a generous 6-feet and 197 pounds, taller and heavier than Kadri, Brent had another tick in his favour, turning pro just when the lockout ended and the new rules allowed skill players to flourish. He had 28 points in 33 Marlies' games last year.
"(Maturity) comes at different times for different players," Brent said. "I have tried to learn every year, tried to get better every year. I know I've prepared the way I should have for this camp."