Kadri making strides

Toronto Maple Leafs' forward Nazem Kadri celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins with...

Toronto Maple Leafs' forward Nazem Kadri celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins with teammates on the bench during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto March 19, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:17 PM ET

It’s late in the third period at a half-full Ricoh Coliseum when Toronto Marlies centre Nazem Kadri takes possession of the puck and dances to the mid-boards inside the Houston Aeros’ end.

Aeros winger Justin Fontaine moves in to take Kadri out. At that point, the easy play for Kadri, with no teammates open, would be to fire the puck behind the Houston net. Instead, the Marlies centre uses the boards and his stick-handling skills to keep the puck away from the increasingly frustrated Fontaine, who chases Kadri like a farmer chasing a chicken.

Kadri spins and shifts until a teammate finally opens. His impressive display of skill brings a loud ovation from the normally subdued crowd. And it’s just one in a number of sublime plays produced by Kadri in the course of the Marlies’ 4-0 win over the Aeros on a Saturday afternoon.

For Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, watching Kadri dance with the puck, especially in the neutral and offensive zones, is a matter of admiration and frustration. He loves the skill, but he’s also aware that Kadri — still — sometimes gets too cute and turns the puck over. And essentially that’s why the London, Ont., native has failed to crack the Maple Leafs lineup on a consistent basis.

There are few players in the Leafs system who possess Kadri’s offensive talents. His skills sometimes leave you in awe. In Saturday’s win over Houston, Kadri picked up an assist on Greg Scott’s first-period goal with a beautiful pass across the crease — one of four points in the game for Scott. But Kadri easily could have had two or three more assists. And there was at least one occasion when he turned the puck over with an ill-timed pass that led to a Houston break out.

That’s been the book on Kadri since he first attended the Leafs training camp in 2009 — amazing talent, great vision with the puck, but a tendency to produce turnovers. However, since being sent down to the Marlies, where Kadri continues to dazzle offensively — he was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Month for November with six goals and 11 assists in 12 games — the young star has cut down on his mistakes. And if he makes that a permanent deal, it’s just a matter of time before he makes a permanent shift to the Leafs.

“I think I pretty much have everything down pat now,” said Kadri. “I’ve learned my lessons. Luckily I’ve put together a string of great games. I’m always looking to improve my neutral zone and defensive end of things. And I think Dally can back me up on this when I say I’m definitely well improved and I’ve come a long, long way.”

Eakins does concur, adding that Kadri is so talented, his skills sometimes work against him, such as his tendency to carry the puck into the offensive zone when the team is leading, instead of just chipping it in.

“There are instances were a little chip play, that is so beneath (him), is the right play,” said Eakins, who has led the Marlies, despite a rash of injuries and callups, to first place in the AHL’s North Division. “But he’s buying it. Listen, I don’t want to take this kid’s skill away, and I never will. But in the end, we’re looking for him to recognize danger and have a real good feel for where he’s at when he has that puck through the neutral zone.”

With the Leafs sporting a winning record, there are no indications that Kadri is going to get called up any time soon. But the 2009 seventh overall draft pick says that he’ll be ready when the time comes. One thing the kid does not lack, is confidence.

“Without a doubt I know I can play in the NHL,” he said. “And I’m fully confident when and if I get the call, to be able to step right in and be the impact player that they want me to be.

“You hit the nail right on the head, I have the ability to do some things not a lot of people can do,” Kadri added. “So I’ve got to use that to my advantage. I just turned 21, I’m still a young guy, I’m still learning the systems and how things go, but for my age and for my development, I’m definitely improving a lot.”

The key for Kadri is to continue to work on his defence and remain patient, which isn’t always easy, especially on a weekend like this past one, where the Marlies played three games in a row — Friday night in Grand Rapids followed by afternoon tilts on Saturday and Sunday afternoon at Ricoh. After a six hour bus ride home following the Grand Rapids game, the team didn’t roll into Toronto until after 4 a.m.

“Yeah, it is a tough turnaround,” said Kadri. “Especially riding on that bus. But there’s no excuses. You’re a professional hockey player and this is what we’re paid to do. I think I wasn’t a very patient guy coming into pro hockey, but that’s something I’ve definitely learned to accept.”


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