Fifth Tour of Duty: On Kadri, Cox, and impatience

Photo: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Photo: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Damien Cox wrote a piece for The Star last night worth reading (no sarcasm). You’ll rarely hear me hand out such praise for D-Cox, but I’ll give credit where it’s due on an opinion piece that at least was fair and got me thinking, even if I disagreed with most of it.

The highlights if you rather not contribute pageviews:

“They seem to have gone overboard in making Kadri understand that his status as the first player selected by Brian Burke during his tenure in Toronto accords him no special status at all, that being highly skilled and the seventh pick of the 2009 entry draft just means he’ll have to work as hard — or harder — than any other player to crack the NHL lineup.”

“He’s played the left side but right wing isn’t Kadri’s position. But at least he’s joining a unit with proven offensive players. The trick now is to give him an extended look and try to find somebody who gels with him.”

“If the Leafs do that and Kadri still can’t cut it, well, then it may be decision time. He’s got another season on his entry-level deal but it’s hard to imagine that if he flunks this audition it’s ever going to happen for him with the Leafs.

That happens. A lot. MacArthur’s a great example of a player who didn’t figure it out until his third team and his seventh pro season.

Kadri will almost certainly be an NHL player. The Leafs just need to find out now if it can be for them.”

First, Cox makes a decent point when he writes that Kadri could ideally use an extended stay, alongside some skilled linemates (reportedly MacArthur and Connolly), to see if he can start to catch on with the big club. Skill wise, he’s proven since day one with the Marlies he’s above AHL competition. (That’s not to say that he can’t work on things in the other areas of his game while he’s down there).

Where Cox starts to lose me is in his intimation that the Leafs owe Kadri something. The fact that Kadri was Brian Burke’s first draft selection as GM of the Maple Leafs, or that he was drafted seventh in a draft in which five of the top six are now regular NHLers, ultimately doesn’t mean a whole lot. This is the National Hockey League, and you have to earn your place on an NHL roster. There’s divergence in opinion as to whether or not Wilson has positioned Kadri best for success, but for my money Kadri’s never earned the opportunity, nor has he ever made it a hard decision to send him down. The way it shook down at training camp pitted Frattin against Kadri for a spot in the lineup, and Frattin rightfully won out.

It would be ideal to give Kadri an extended stay alongside a pair of skilled linemates, gauge where he’s at, and decide where things stand with the 21-year-old. But Kadri has to earn that extended stay. The time for developmental experiments is over; the expectation is playoffs now, and the Leafs are in the business of winning hockey games. If Kadri again doesn’t prove to be enough of a contributor in his fifth tour of duty, he can return to where he can. Cox’s argument about Kadri not being allowed to play his natural position, or not being allowed an honoured number like Sundin’s #13, follows the same logic; prove you’re disciplined enough, offensively and defensively, to be an NHL centerman. Prove you’re deserving of that #13, don’t get it handed to you. The bottom line is, so far, he hasn’t.

Next, I don’t get Cox’s now-or-never argument. There is definitely some validity to Cox’s statement that some players take a number of years on a number of teams (he cites MacArthur as an example) in order to find their niche in the league, but there’s also no shortage of examples of high-drafted players who needed significant time in the American Hockey League or elsewhere before they were ready for prime time.

A random assortment of examples I could think of:

Phoenix first round pick in 1996, Daniel Briere spent four seasons (1997-88 until 200-01). bouncing back and forth between the Springfield Falcons and the Coyotes before he finally caught on as a an NHL regular. In his first full season with Phoenix, he posted 32 goals and 60 points in 78 NHL games.

This is only Kadri’s second season of his yo-yo act with the Maple Leafs and Marlies and we’re already forgetting the guy we all want to trade him for, second overall pick in 2005 Bobby Ryan, spent three seasons doing it with Anaheim and Portland/Iowa.

A more European example, how about Mikko Koivu, a former sixth overall pick who spent three seasons in Finland following his draft year before crossing the pond to play a full season with the Houston Aeros?

Former first round pick of the Vancouver Canucks Michael Grabner took four full seasons in the AHL before breaking into the league (with a 34 goal campaign) as an NHL regular with the Islanders.

Logan Couture, San Jose’s ninth overall pick in 2007, took two more years of junior after his draft year (compared to Kadri’s one), and still spent two part season with Worcester of the AHL.

Perhaps the best one – Brayden Schenn, the once considered best prospect in hockey drafted two spots above Kadri in the 2009 draft, has been handled very similarly by the Kings and Flyers as Kadri has by the Leafs.

Of course, it’s possible Kadri could be a MacArthur or an Andrew Ladd, whose best fit isn’t necessarily with his first (or second) organization. Regardless of mine or your personal opinion on Kadri’s potential, why have we lost sight of how player development typically works with a 21 year old prospect? I’d attribute the impatience to equal part the current league trend of younger and younger players being ready for prime time earlier and earlier, and equal part the degree of overscrutinization unique to a fishbowl hockey market like Toronto. They can’t all be Jeff Skinners, and overanalyzing whether Kadri needed 35 games instead of 29 last season to really catch on isn’t worth the e-paper it’s typed on.

Tonight presents the start of an opportunity (of undetermined length) for Kadri to prove he deserves more time with the Leafs than he’s been getting this season. An opportunity Kadri is and should be relishing, but still not one that determines Kadri’s future in Toronto or as an NHL player.