So the Toronto Maple Leafs are thinking about converting a natural left winger into a centre to address their need for a No. 1 pivot, are they?
That’s the word from Leafs coach Randy Carlyle who last week suggested newcomer James van Riemsdyk could skate on the top line between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Seems a little far-fetched perhaps, but hey, maybe it’s worth a try.
What might make more sense, though, is giving Nazem Kadri a shot at playing on the top line. The 21-year-old natural centre, who was switched to left wing last season during a 21-game stint with the Maple Leafs, has made huge strides toward becoming more than just a one-way threat over the past two seasons under the watchful eye of Dallas Eakins, coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies.
Now Kadri is taking things to the next level this summer training under fitness guru Gary Roberts, the former NHL star who spends a great deal of his time these days enlightening young athletes about the benefits of proper diet and training. Roberts only works with the most dedicated athletes so that in itself is a good indication of Kadri’s determination to take his game to the next level. For Kadri, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, his mission is to get leaner, turning fat into muscle, and to become more explosive.
"Honest to God, I think in terms of what I am supposed to do on the ice, it’s all taken care of," Kadri said. "I know my role and what I am supposed to do when I am on the ice. It’s the off-ice routine that I am really focusing on. I am dedicating myself in terms of having a strict meal plan and working on explosive legs lifts so that my first couple of strides can separate me from everyone else. I’m already a pretty quick and elusive hockey player so once I get that explosiveness; it’s going to be dangerous."
Kadri, who turns 22 Oct. 6, has played 51 NHL games with the Maple Leafs since being the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He has eight goals and 19 points in that span and has taken massive steps toward becoming less of the defensive liability he was when he first arrived on the scene. In fact, Kadri was one of the Marlies best players in the playoffs this past season right up until he separated his shoulder, causing him to miss the championship series which was won by Norfolk in four games. He said not playing in the final was a bitter pill to swallow.
"I still think there is no doubt we would have taken that series if we didn’t get hit by the injury bug," Kadri said. "In the final round with three of our top players out it was pretty hard to battle through."
Kadri’s energetic approach to the game came back to bite him in the rump.
"I went to hit somebody and he was a lot bigger than me," Kadri recalled. "I tried to run him over and caught the wrong end of him. My shoulder slipped off and I ended up separating it. It wasn’t fun."
Kadri assures his shoulder now is, "as good as new."
That will come as a relief to the Maple Leafs who are looking at becoming bigger and tougher next season. Kadri won’t help in either of those departments although it should be noted he’s not a player that shies away from the rough going, but he’s not worried about being left behind because of a change of direction by the organization.
"No, not really, because at the end of the day I know what I can do and I know what assets I can bring," Kadri said. "My style of game is very suitable for the Toronto Maple Leafs and I think it will stay that way.
"By the same token I have a lot to prove. I know deep down inside – and I don’t know if anybody else believes this – but I believe I can be one of those top centers for a team. It may take a little bit of time, but I think I definitely have the potential to be that and more. Right now it lies in my hands. I’m doing everything I can to work hard and make that next step to make me an explosive player. I think the reason I’m not talked about in that scenario is because of how young I am. They say the middle of the ice is a little difficult to play when you are this young. I am a natural centre at heart and I see myself making that transition back with no problem."
When asked about Kadri during the spring, Eakins said people tend to be impatient with young players.
"Especially when you are the team’s first round pick, everyone is in a massive hurry," Eakins told sportsnet.ca. "People say, ‘Put him in now! Put him in now! Put him in now!’ We want to put him in when he’s ready. He has high-end NHL skill, for sure. His hands and his eyes — the way he sees the ice — are right up there with the best. You can’t teach that stuff. This isn’t NHL skill; it’s the high end of the NHL skill. He’s 21, but he’s in an 18-year-old’s body and he needs to get stronger and faster."
Kadri had 18 goals and 40 points and was plus-2 for the Marlies in the regular season and added three goals and 10 points in 11 playoff games during which he was plus-6. He was plus-2 in 21 games with the Leafs.
"Kadri has become much more of a complete player," Leafs GM Brian Burke said following the season.
Kadri is working his tail off so that when the NHL season starts up, he’ll be a fixture with the Maple Leafs. Many of the first rounders from the 2009 draft are entrenched as NHL regulars now, but Kadri insisted he’s not worried about being left behind.
"That’s really one of the things that I don’t have a say on," he said. "I really have no choice other than to be patient. I’m taking it stride by stride and I know the end result is going to be something very powerful. I’m getting better and stronger every single day. Honestly, when I grow into my body and I’m fully grown I believe I’m going to be a pretty good hockey player. You’ve got to stay patient and that’s one of the main things I keep telling myself. I thought I could have stepped in my first year, but you don’t want to rush it."