Nazem Kadri has three goals and seven assists in six games with the Marlies this season. (Photo by Graig Abel)
Nazem Kadri's dangles, footwork and toe-drags will earn him time on highlight segments, but it will not be his route to a permanent NHL job.
After much angst and media controversy during training camp, the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the 20-year-old rookie to the Toronto Marlies to begin an American League apprenticeship. It speaks to the Leafs’ improved organizational depth that they resisted any temptation to have the youngster learn the pro game on NHL ice this season.
Kadri came in for a strong dose of criticism from Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson during training camp. While there is no denying the innate talent and creativity the London Knights product offers, some less glamorous elements to the pro game – two-way play and strength – require further work.
"I always knew the offensive side would come,” said Kadri, who has three goals and seven points in his first six games of the season. "It was just the defensive part that I had to focus on. (Defensive play) is what I think is going to take me to the NHL.
"It feels like it's getting better and better each game. I think that if I just keep progressively getting better, it's only looking up for me."
Marlies coach Dallas Eakins is a no-nonsense sort who employed a no-frills game over his 16-season pro career. With the Marlies, Kadri will have Eakins and assistant coach Derek King available for an ongoing education in the pro game.
Certainly the Marlies have struggled, though. A 2-4-0 start to the season could worsen considerably, particularly with a 10-game road trip looming after this weekend. But Eakins may have discovered chemistry in assembling his club’s top line.
Kadri is known as a center, but he played wing with the Knights. For the Marlies’ first home win last weekend, Eakins slotted Kadri on left wing as part of a line with intriguing prospect Brayden Irwin and erstwhile AHL veteran Joey Crabb.
The line went out and ravaged a tired Oklahoma City club in a 5-2 Marlies win. Kadri collected two goals to go with a pair of assists. One of his goals was a beautiful effort in which he toe-dragged flat-footed Barons defenseman Jeff Petry before beating goaltender Bryan Pitton. Crabb recorded two goals of his own and Irwin picked up three assists in Toronto's best effort this season.
"Those are things that you can't teach a player," Eakins said of Kadri's highlight-reel goal.
But it was the less-obvious intangibles that created space and opportunity for Kadri.
"In this league, it’s all about moving your feet,” Kadri said. “I think I kept my feet moving, so they were forced to haul me down a couple of times. When they didn't haul me down, I had a couple of chances to score, so it's a win-win for me. I think I figured it out here and how to play in this league.”
Eakins is not the sort to generously dole out unmerited praise, but Kadri's potential excites the stern coach.
"He is committed to learning here," Eakins said after the Marlies win. "We're excited by him. That kid is committed to getting better and I'm really encouraged by that."
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From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.