Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nazem Kadri part V (or is it VI)?

It feels like it's been a century since the confident young kid from southern Ontario was Brian Burke's first draft pick as GM of the Leafs. Since Nazem Kadri's name was called at the 2009 draft, Leaf Nation have went on a journey of glee, hope, disappointment, hope again, frustration, and in some cases, now, indifference.

If you've been keeping track, you've read his obituary too, his 67 games in the AHL providing all that critics have needed to go ahead and carve his NHL tombstone. Just another on a long list of highly regarded Leafs prospects who couldn't morph themselves into a player worthy of the NHL's absurd speed and physicality.

Others argue that Kadri's road to the NHL has been nothing out of the ordinary. They point to the plethora of NHL stars who have needed as much or more time in the AHL before making the leap to the bigs. Ryan Miller, the man who will be tasked with stopping Kadri tonight in fact, played in 170 AHL games. Bobby Ryan played in 70 games for the Portland Pirates. Zach Parise played in 73 for Albany, a river rat for an entire season. All more than Kadri, so far.

Kids develop at different rates. Bryan Murray just made a high stakes bet that Kyle Turris' curve is about to make a sudden and steep incline after years of ho-hum productivity. Turris wouldn't be the only late bloomer if Murray is correct. Not every kid can walk into the NHL and succeed off the hop. But even the most glass-half-full Leafs fan is starting to wonder if Kadri will ever live up to the hype.

Luckily, for the Leafs, Kadri's and the teams development have not been a parallel path. Kadri has struggled to make the team but in the same span the Leafs franchise has vastly improved. Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Joe Colborne and the unexpected emergence of James Reimer has given the restless Leaf Nation something to focus on while Kadri has worked on his game away from the spotlight.

Will tonight be the game we remember as the night Kadri began his assertion into the Leafs permanent fold? Will this be another blip on the radar, or the beginning of the end, or some kind of showcase for the trade possibilities that have become part of the conversation too?

In an hour or so we'll begin to find out. Me, personally, I've tried to implement a new way of looking at the players, prospects and picks who make up this Leafs ecosystem. No player is THAT important in the overall scheme. A great franchise needs to have room for error, room for surprises and a willingness to see past the tree for the good of the maple forest. But if Kadri could become the creative hockey player that had Bryan Murray approach Burke to trade for the chance to draft, or the player that Burke envisioned when he declined, it would be a real treat for Leafs fans.

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