Kadri could force tough decisions up front


Perhaps the best part about Nazem Kadri’s two-goal, three-point performance last night against the Ottawa Senators is that he can start the season with the Toronto Marlies with his head held high. Certainly, Leafs fans, management and Kadri alike will hope he can relay last night’s performance on the wing into another strong showing against Detroit on Friday and make a case for a place in the big Leafs‘ top six for the October 7th date with the Habs. But should Kadri’s play return to the form he exhibited in previous preseason showings – by no means terrible, but not as impressive as it will take – he can take solace and confidence in last night’s achievements and start off on the right foot at the Ricoh.

Given the market and the club’s track record when it comes to first round picks and their historical non-development, it’s understandable that there’s been extremely thorough analysis of Kadri’s performance this preseason.  While I don’t think all Leafs fans -as sometimes depicted – see it as a doomsday scenario to have Kadri start in the Marlies, there’s also mass overanalysis on the part of some fans about the manner in which the coaching staff has handled the media’s queries surrounding Kadri’s play. I for one don’t have a problem with the way it’s been managed. Wilson and Burke are both straightforward individuals that rarely hold back, but they’re not blind to the individual personalities of their players. Additionally, anything Wilson or Burke have said is nothing that hasn’t been first discussed privately with the player himself. Wilson and Burke’s remarks about Kadri not living up to expectations wasn’t news to us or Kadri. Sure, Wilson’s remarks bordered on sarcastic at points throughout the preseason (such as Kadri looking like his skates weren’t sharp), but Wilson must have thought it wasn’t anything Kadri couldn’t handle, and that it would result in motivation, not deflation. The results last night certainly suggest that. And in a weird way, the fact that Wilson showed no hesitation in making the remarks he did sort of compliments Kadri in that it speaks to his character, determination, honesty towards his play and acknowledgement of his need to be better.

Wilson’s comments last night also came under some scrutiny on message boards, as he didn’t promote Kadri as a mayoral candidate after a good twenty minutes of hockey. Given last night’s performance needs to be more than a flash in the pan and instead the beginning of continued improved play, Wilson did a good job of not letting fans, media or Kadri himself get too high while acknowledging a much better performance from his player. Kadri knows it has to continue, and that message was made clear.

Tomorrow night will be Kadri’s real test from coach Wilson’s perspective. A top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg seems set for opening night, and if he can combine well with linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin on the second unit to provide a secondary kick, Wilson is potentially looking at a much more skill-laden top six than previous iterations. The two-way MacArthur performed well on that wing but few would disagree that he’s a bit above his head in trying to shoulder a full time top six role. If you then consider a third line of some combination of Fredrik Sjostrom, Luca Caputi, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong (though there is no natural centreman among that group), and an energy line of Mike Brown/Jay Rosehill, Christian Hanson and Colton Orr, the Leafs suddenly look a lot more complete top to bottom up front.

But it’s also easy to see where the decisions get tough for Wilson. Caputi looks much improved so far this preseason, getting to the dirty areas well and providing a net presence – two much needed attributes on this Leaf roster – but seems to be the odd man out in the above scenario based on the numbers game alone. Nor do the above combinations solve the need for size and experience down the middle. Wilson was high on praise for Tim Brent after last night, whose great play wasn’t all that clear to me but he has certainly been quietly solid. I don’t think Wilson would hesitate to start the season with Brent at third line center ice.

While the pairings on defence seem all but set for now, the second and third forward lines are anything but settled with two preseason games remaining. How do you guys see it shaking down?

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at alec.brownscombe@mapleleafshotstove.com.