“I can’t see him playing in our lineup opening night, and I don’t think it’s that important,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said Friday. “He’s got to learn to be a better hockey player.”
It really isn’t that important. It just seems important, because there have been daily updates of Kadri’s progress or lack thereof throughout the preseason – blunt criticism from Wilson and general manager Brian Burke, contrite comments from Kadri. But in the big picture, Kadri is still only a kid who turns 20 on Wednesday, the day before the Leafs open the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens.
Whether he plays against the Habs now isn’t going to make or break him or the Leafs. What’s important at this stage is that he gets himself ready to play in the NHL, because the Leafs are counting on him to play in the NHL eventually, probably sooner rather than later.
“There’s really nothing to sulk about,” Kadri said after another unimpressive performance, this one in a 7-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. “I’ve been given the opportunity of a lifetime here. This is the NHL. There’s no room for crybabies.
“I’m not going to be that guy. If it means going down … I’ll handle it. I’ll play my best, and I’ll be right back up here.”
Kadri has been the hot story in Toronto for good reasons. One, it’s Toronto. Two, Kadri was the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. He had three goals and five points in six preseason games for the Leafs last year, then 35 goals and 93 points for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Skilled and colorful, he represents hope and excitement for a team in a hockey-mad town that finished second-to-last in the league last season and needs help at the center position.
But it’s one thing to put up numbers in the preseason when you aren’t expected to make the team. It’s another to do it when you’ve done it before and people expect you to do it again. And if you can’t perform under that pressure in the preseason, you aren’t ready to do it in the regular season, especially in a market like Toronto.
In a sense, it has been startling how openly Wilson and Burke have criticized Kadri during the preseason. Most coaches and GMs would be more discreet, afraid of damaging a top prospect’s confidence. But Wilson and Burke are that way by nature, and Kadri has been a little too confident at times, needing to be humbled. Burke had a private chat with him last December that woke him up in terms of his work habits. This seemed to be part of the test.
The good news is that Kadri passed that part. He was polite and professional responding to his bosses’ comments and reporters’ questions, and at least outwardly, his psyche doesn’t seem damaged. Assuming he heads to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League instead of the Maple Leafs, he needs to stay as humble and hard-working as he sounds.
“Everyone better realize my history and my firm belief that most players benefit from time in the minors,” Burke said. “That goes to Ryan Getzlaf(notes), Bobby Ryan(notes), Dustin Penner(notes), Corey Perry(notes) – Tyler Bozak(notes) last year.”
Burke didn’t say that Friday, after Kadri had been disappointing in the preseason. He said that in early September, when Kadri hadn’t even hit camp yet and hopes were high. When Burke was GM of the Anaheim Ducks, Getzlaf, Ryan, Penner and Perry all served their time in the AHL, and all have turned out just fine, thank you. Bozak started out with the Marlies last year, and now look: He’s centering the Leafs’ top line.
It remains to be seen whether Bozak is up for that challenge, having played only 37 NHL games. But he certainly didn’t look out of place Friday, playing between Kris Versteeg(notes) and Phil Kessel(notes). The line seemed to gel, with Versteeg making two artful passes for assists on goals by Bozak and Kessel. And if anything, the Leafs have looked like the opposite of what they are expected to be, which lessens the need for Kadri to make an immediate offensive impact.
The Leafs are supposed to be strong in goal, strong on defense and weak up front. We won’t harp too much on Friday’s game, because third-string goaltender Jussi Rynnas(notes) struggled badly – a couple of leaky goals made the score worse than it should have been – and the Leafs were playing an elite team on the road. No one expects Rynnas to hold the fort for the Leafs, and no one expects the Leafs to compete with the elite this season. But while Versteeg and his mates made some pretty offensive plays, the Leafs spent much of the night losing battles, losing races and chasing the puck.
“I don’t know if you can call it a measuring stick, but there were certainly some things we got schooled in tonight,” Wilson said. “It’s a good game for someone like Nazem Kadri to see how hard that team backchecks and does all the little detail work.”
Wilson said the Red Wings looked like the Red Wings of two years ago, the team that won the 2008 Stanley Cup. He called them “very determined” and “very deep”, “quick, fast, big and strong,” “like a real men’s team out there.” He didn’t say it, but he implied it: Kadri is still a boy.
And that’s OK. He still has time to grow up.
“I’m not going to complain at all, by all means,” Kadri said. “It’s a learning process. I’m still a young guy. If it means going to the minors, so be it. But my plan – if I do head down there – [is] to not be down there very long and work as hard as I can to get right back up here.”