Of all the players who have worn the Leafs' sweater since the lockout, nobody gets more of my sympathy than Nazem Kadri.
Drafted 7th overall in 2009, Kadri had to bear the weight of some serious expectations. The Leafs, you see, were a team with Phil Kessel and a revolving door of players up front, coupled with a system that really had no talented forwards to speak of -- unless you're willing to count Jiri Tlusty.
In 2008, Luke Schenn was drafted 5th overall and made the team out of camp in his first season. Schenn then went on to have a solid first year with the team and played the hard-nosed brand of defense that fans in Toronto love. This was the immediate precedent set for Kadri.
Kadri was supposed to be our next offensive star. Would he make the team out of camp as Schenn did? Would he be in the conversation for the Calder at year's end? These were the questions that Leaf fans were asking.
Well, the answer to both was 'no'.
Kadri did however go back to Junior and the London Knights, and put up 93 points in 56 games and was one of the top players in the OHL. He may not have made the Maple Leafs, but it seemed he was developing well. Maybe he could win the Calder the next year?
Again, the answer was 'no'.
In 2010-11, Kadri split time between the Marlies (44 GP) and the Leafs (29 GP). While with the Leafs, the coach and GM both publicly lamented some of his decision-making with the puck. He'd gotten bigger but maybe not in a good way as he seemed to lose some of the evasiveness that had made him a standout in the OHL. Still, at nearly a point-per-game in the AHL and with 12 points in 29 games with the Leafs, there were more than occasional glimpses of the offensive skillset that saw him drafted early in the first round.
Now, it's early in the 2011-12 season and Kadri is once again playing on the fringes with the Maple Leafs. When the team is healthy, he's found himself in the AHL. If a couple of guys are out, he's in the lineup.
Kadri's time as a professional thus far has seen a lot of ups and downs. He's had to deal with unfair expectations from fans and, in my opinion, excessive criticism from the coaching staff. I understand that he needs to develop a defensive game and needs to make better decisions with the puck in the neutral zone but it's also apparent that he's trying to learn and there's little doubt that he has NHL skills. Add to this the fact that Kadri has been moved from center to the wing and you're throwing an awful lot of information at the young man.
This year, Kadri has been the primary casualty of the team's new found forward depth but things may be changing for the youngster. With Tim Connolly still out (though likely returning soon) and Grabovski and MacArthur scheduled for MRIs, it seems likely that Kadri will be joining the Leafs this week. Not only this, but the roster openings look to be of the 'top-six' variety which is precisely the kind of opportunity Kadri needs if he's going to succeed.
Kadri has 7 points in his last 6 games in the AHL and scored the game winning goal over the weekend. He's playing well with the Marlies, but he's always played well with the Marlies. I'm about to add my name to the throngs of fans who have been heaping expectations on the guy, but this really is his best chance to date and I expect him to take full advantage. He should see time on the powerplay, will likely get top-six minutes, and you'd better believe he'll get the tap on the shoulder should we find ourselves in a shootout.
The truth of the matter is, Kadri isn't a bottom-six forward; he can't be. He's not, nor will he ever be, a strong defensive player. Not every guy needs to be Ryan Kesler, though. Every hockey team needs guys that can produce offense as well as guys who can prevent the other team from producing offense. Hockey, it has been said, is a goal scoring competition.
This probably isn't how Nazem hoped he would rejoin the team -- with two key players going down to injury -- but it's safe to say that this is likely the best opportunity that Kadri has had to date and I sincerely hope that he's ready for it.