Meet the new, improved Nazem Kadri

Leafs coach Ron Wilson talks with Nazem Kadri at the end of practice at the Mastercard Centre in...

Leafs coach Ron Wilson talks with Nazem Kadri at the end of practice at the Mastercard Centre in Etobicoke on December, 21, 2011. (Craig Robertson/QMI Agency)

Lance Hornby, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:23 PM ET

TORONTO - At age 21, it seems strange to talk about Nazem Kadri being near the make-or-break point with the Maple Leafs.

But on a team that has added more young lions to its roster since Kadri was drafted first overall in 2009, this week’s sudden call-up will have a big say on his future as a Leaf, at least under this management. Kadri is now on his fourth tour with the parent club and given Matt Frattin’s regular gig and Joe Colborne’s great reviews a couple of weeks ago, it’s clear Kadri has to do something special to keep his name prominent.

With Kadri summoned ahead of Colborne, tongues were already wagging that this was a move to showcase Kadri for a deal in the New Year. If so, it’s the new-model Kadri, whom everyone seems to think has patched up most of his defensive weaknesses. He faced a long road back after a terrible 2010 camp when a job was waiting for him and the team gave him every chance to succeed, but he wasn’t ready. The London, Ont., native would prefer the Leafs reap those benefits now, not another NHL team.

“Of course I (hear trade rumours), but that’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life,” Kadri said Wednesday at the MasterCard Centre. “Especially in a market such as Toronto. You focus on what you have to and let the rest fall into place.

“I want to be here. This is where I dreamed of playing since I was a kid. I’m trying to make that a reality and establish myself. I did have some things I had to work on, I believe I’ve done that and I hope I can cash in this time.”

Kadri and the Marlies weren’t exactly lighting it up in their past three games, getting just one goal in consecutive losses. But he shares the club scoring lead with Marcel Mueller and Mike Zigomanis with 22 points each. Kadri’s eight goals and 14 assists included three power-play goals and a minus four. He was the AHL’s player of the month in November and in his first stint with the Leafs this year, he had an assist in three games.

Kadri grabbed an early-morning flight to Toronto from the Marlies’ road trip in the Chicago area. With Colby Armstrong and now Phlippe Dupuis on IR this week and the Leafs in a rut of 2-5-2, Kadri has been afforded a great chance. After fighting his way back on the roster late last year in a left wing role, he’ll now be auditioning for what could become the second line, with Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur.

Starting with Thursday’s home game against Buffalo, he’ll be asked again to switch roles, this time to the right side. And once more, the focus will be on whether he can handle the puck safely and stay poised when the other team has the disc.

“That’s one of the main things that (Marlie coach Dallas Eakins) has been referring to — the night and day difference with me,” Kadri said. “I’m much more responsible in my own end. I think it’s come down to just instinct now, where I have to be. The coaching staff and the whole team (particularly veteran Zigomanis) have made it easier on me. They just gave me the encouragement. They talked about it a lot, not stressing me, but showing me a couple of clips of what I had to do. I listened, I absorbed and went out there and did it.”

Coach Ron Wilson, who has tried the tough love approach a couple of times, believes Kadri is ready — with proper mentoring.

“Some guys don’t even need time in the minors and in some cases, it’s a year or two or three,” Wilson said.

“I think his defensive game has improved a lot. He probably still does things at the American League level that you can get away with there. That’s an adjustment he has to make. I went over some things that might be different in the sense of playing right wing. But all he has to do is talk a lot to Timmy.

“Last year he didn’t get as many offensive looks as he needs to be successful. But playing with Clarkie and Timmy, he should get those and we’ll try to get him out there on the power play.”

Observers raved about Kadri’s vision and creativity at camp, but the Leafs settled on players such as Frattin, who has shown glimpses of greatness when he drives the net to augment his other talents.

“I’m ready for this,” Kadri insisted, not one to shy away. “Ron told me to go out and play my game. He’s not trying to take away my creativity, he wants to see me control the puck. I do have to watch my turnovers, pick my spot and use my skill. I’ve been waiting for this a long time and my opportunity has come.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

 


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