Lebanese-Canadian hockey player Nazem Kadri is finally exhibiting the potential that prompted the National Hockey Leagueâ€™s Toronto Maple Leafs made him with the number seven overall pick in the 2009 entry draft.
But with veteran centre Tyler Bozak (shoulder) soon returning to the lineup â€” and eventually winger Colby Armstrong (concussion) â€” will coach Ron Wilson stick with the increasingly-dangerous Kadri or deploy a more veteran club for the stretch drive to the playoffs? Barring more injuries, or a trade, thatâ€™s an intriguing dilemma for Wilson but one that Kadri, 21, insists is totally under his control regardless of how Leafs 23-man roster shapes up.
When Bozak, 25, Armstrong, 29, and defenceman John-Michael Liles, 31, return, the Leafs will have 25 players â€” two too many. â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s out of my control. I decide my own fate,â€ Kadri told The Star Monday after practice at the MasterCard Centre. â€œThe way I do that is the way I play. If Iâ€™m going to keep playing as well as I have been playing thatâ€™s going to make decisions that much harder for the coaching staff.â€
Kadri has three goals and two assists in 11 games but could easily have had double that number of points had some of his quick â€” and creative passes â€” been converted into goals since being recalled from the Leafsâ€™ American Hockey League affiiiate the Toronto Marlies on December 31st. Heâ€™s been getting scoring chances almost every shift and his line with Matthew Lombardi and Clarke MacArthur has been an offensive threat almost every time they hit the ice. Theyâ€™ll again skate together Tuesday against the visiting Buffalo Sabres as Leafs seek their fourth consecutive win.
Bozak skated Monday for the first time since injuring his shoulder in Winnipeg in practice before the New Yearâ€™s Eve game. He should be ready to go by this time next week. It makes no sense having a young, offensive player a healthy scratch in the press box so Kadri has to play â€” or head back to the Marlies â€” unless Wilson decides to sit Joey Crabb, 28, or Darryl Boyce, 27. Both players are better defensively than Kadri and have the kind of grit playoff bound teams need. But neither Crabb nor Boyce has Kadriâ€™s offensive upside.
Overall, Wilson has been happy with Kadriâ€™s play although he said before Saturdayâ€™s 4-3 win against Detroit that he was a concerned the â€œturnover virusâ€ had started to creep back into his game. â€œHeâ€™s learning to keep his game simple and he understands what is a dangerous play,â€ Wilson said after practice Monday. â€œItâ€™s an on-going process for him to get used to moving his feet.â€ Making sound decisions with the puck also makes Kadri a better player, Wilson said. â€œHeâ€™s not rushing down the ice with four players in front of him and trying to do something more to get open,â€ Wilson said.
Kadri and Wilson have talked about how he needs to play to remain effective.â€œIâ€™m aware (turnovers) of that but I think in order to make those creative plays, those turnovers are going to happen,â€ Kadri said. â€œRon and I have talked about me picking my spots, not trying to make something out of nothing. In most cases, a little chip off the boards just to get the puck back to get the cycle game going and then use my creativity off the cycle. Theyâ€™re just little stepping stones to stick here.â€
Itâ€™s tough to teach the kind of offensive talents he brings to the ice every shift. On most shifts, Kadri begins to work his magic a couple of feet just inside the offensive blueline. â€œIâ€™m normally pretty good at reading the play and figuring out what the defenders are going to do,â€ Kadri said. â€œMy go-to is just drawing defenders to me. Sometimes when I use my feet, Iâ€™m able to squirm away from those guys. Thatâ€™s when the second and third wave of coverage comes at you and thatâ€™s when you start to find guys. Really, itâ€™s just instinct. I try to keep my head up and find the open guy.â€
But Kadri has also become far more defensively accountable in his second stint this season with the big club, something he worked on with the Marlies â€œIâ€™m pretty confident with the puck now at this point in my career. I definitely realize when to make plays and when to keep the puck and when not to,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve become much more responsible. Trying to stay away from areas where I get into difficulty. The coaching staff has done a great job of giving me confidence and not take away my creativity. â€œGuys are so fast and big, especially off the cycle. They can pin you to the boards unless youâ€™re moving your feet. Iâ€™m always trying to stay one step ahead of them.â€
Kadri made Leafs out of training camp but a pre-season injury (knee strain) sidelined him and by the time he returned, rookie Matt Frattin had won the job. Kadri started slowly with the Marlies but wound up being named AHL player of the month for November (8 goals and 14 assists in 22 games) and was recalled when both Armstrong and Philippe Dupuis were injured. Frattin was demoted last week. Dupuis was sent down the week before.