TORONTO - Nazem Kadri has played the equivalent of just over half a National Hockey League season.
The Maple Leafs forward, though, figured he has not really had the kind of chance that presents itself now.
“This is my opportunity to make myself a full-time NHLer,” Kadri said after the Leafs practised on Friday in preparation for a large game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.
“Fate is my hands, as long as I keep doing what I am doing.”
It’s not lost on Kadri that coach Ron Wilson put him on a line with one of the NHL’s top players in 2011-12, Joffrey Lupul. The speedy combination, along with centre Tim Connolly, clicked right away on Thursday as Kadri scored in the opening minute of the Leafs’ eventual victory against the Minnesota Wild.
There’s always a chance that Kadri could be gone from the trio at a moment’s notice, though the lines that Wilson used against the Wild stayed intact a day later. But just two weeks ago, there was hope in the coaching staff that Kadri would mesh well with Clarke MacArthur and Matthew Lombardi, but that didn’t happen.
For Kadri, the Leafs’ first-round pick, seventh overall, in 2009, as much as he wants to score goals or help create them for others, it’s about proving the trust Wilson has shown in him is warranted.
“You can’t keep the defensive part in the back of your mind,” Kadri said. “It has to be in the front, 24/7. Doing what I am doing along the walls, in my own end, that is where three-quarters of my battles are going to be. I have to try to win every single one of them. If I’m getting the puck out, I will get it back.”
Kadri has the potential to be a big part of the Leafs’ future if he develops properly, and part of the adjustment that comes with playing in the NHL on a regular basis is that he’s not going to be the dominant force that he was in the Ontario Hockey League. There’s enough of a step up from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
“Both the Maple Leafs and Kadri had designs that he was going to be ready sooner than he was,” TSN analyst Craig Button said. “But he’s too talented for the obstacles in his path to success to stop him from developing.”
Outwardly, Kadri is a confident 21-year-old, but when he pauses for thought, he acknowledged some self-doubt can creep in. That’s not uncommon for any player trying to cement a foothold in the NHL, no matter how productive he was at other levels.
When Kadri was a healthy scratch versus the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, the negative thinking took little bites out of him. Was a return to the Marlies just around the corner?
“It’s always in the back of your head — even when you are playing well, there is always that doubt, that healthy guys are coming back, you never know what is going to happen,” Kadri said. “We have great depth on this team and so many guys can come in and contribute. I knew I was going to get another opportunity, and once that came, I was not going to waste it.”
Wilson did not speak to the media on Friday, but the lines remained the same during practice, which leads one to believe there will be no lineup changes when the Canadiens visit on Saturday night. That means that Phil Kessel would stay with Tyler Bozak and Lombardi.
If Kadri struggles against Montreal, Wilson could see fit to juggle again. But that’s not in Kadri’s mindset.
“I think we looked pretty comfortable and sound out there (against the Wild),” Kadri said of the line. “Lupes is easy to play with and so is Connolly. You get in the open space and all of a sudden the puck is on your stick. It makes things a lot easier when you are on the same page offensively.
KADRI’S LEAF TIMELINE
A glance at Nazem Kadri’s various stints with the Maple Leafs, beginning with his current tenure, since Toronto drafted him seventh overall in 2009:
Season GP G-A-Pts
2011-12 12 4-1-5
2011-12 3 0-1-1
2010-11 12 3-3-6
2010-11 17 0-6-6
2009-10 1 0-0-0
Totals 45 7-11-18