From a controversial cut after a strong first training camp, to being publicly called out last season by then-Marlies coach Dallas Eakins for coming to training camp out of shape, Nazem Kadri has had an interesting path to the NHL, to say the least. All of this drama was put to rest (at least temporarily) last year, when, in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season Kadri made the team out of camp and scored 18 goals and 44 points in all 48 games. As is common with many players, Kadri has regressed in his second full season with the team. This has led to many rumours of General Manager Dave Nonis shopping the young forward. Although an upgrade to the roster is always appealing, the Leafs best course of action is to hold onto Kadri.
There are many reasons to keep Kadri, with perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) one being his high skill level. Evident since his junior days, Kadri has great hands and good vision in the offensive zone. He has the potential to become the playmaking number one centre that the team hasn’t had since Mats Sundin. This high end skill was at full display in the Leafs’ game against Montreal on Hockey Night on Canada, January 18th. Kadri takes a pass off the boards from Nikolai Kulemin. He carries it up the ice against three Montreal players, before dangling around Alexei Emelin and making a quick pass over to pinching Cody Franson, who finishes the play off with a goal. That kind of fast, heads up, nifty play can only be done by a very skilled player with high hockey IQ. It is natural talent that cannot be taught, and giving that up on a team built largely on size rather than skill would be a big mistake.
The ceiling on Kadri’s potential is quite high, but there are weaknesses in his game. He is prone to turnovers and poor positional play defensively. He is also not strong on faceoffs, and can be guilty of not back-checking hard enough. This has landed him in Coach Randy Carlyle’s doghouse at times throughout the season, which in turn has contributed to the rumours of Kadri being available for trade. Although being defensively irresponsible (especially under a defensive-minded coach such as Carlyle) is not acceptable for a centre, the Leafs should not give up on Kadri because these weaknesses are not impossible to correct. Many skilled players have come into the league and struggled defensively initially, before learning the nuances of playing without the puck and becoming responsible in all three zones. Guys like Steve Yzerman and Joe Thornton entered the league as largely one-dimensional players before becoming defensively sound with good coaching and experience. These changes will not happen overnight, however it is much easier to teach Kadri to be defensively responsible, than to try to replace him with a player of equal offensive potential.
Trading Kadri could also have negative consequences on Toronto’s future. If you look at any successful NHL team, they have drafted and developed a core group of guys who have been a large part of their team’s success. The Anaheim Ducks (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry), Boston Bruins (David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand), and Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury) are all teams that drafted and developed a core group of players who have grown together and helped their teams win the Stanley Cup. If Toronto wants to have the same result, then they need to have their young players like Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Morgan Rielly as part of their core group. Although there are flaws in each of these player’s games, history has proven that having a young group of players brought up together does pay off eventually.
The Leafs have made many trades in their history that have been rash and come back to haunt them. They have traded the draft picks that became hockey hall of famer Scott Niedermayer and all-star goalie and Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo. They also traded a young Tuukka Rask in desperate deal to get a number one goalie, and we now get to watch Rask backstop the Boston Bruins as one of the best goalies in the NHL. These trades all happened in the past, and are something Leafs fans would love to forget. However Nonis should be aware of the mistakes of his predecessors and not trade Nazem Kadri. As history shows, giving up on high draft picks and young players too soon can come back to haunt you.
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