TORONTO – Nazem Kadri was travelling at full speed.
In the blink of an eye he toe-dragged the puck around Victor Hedman – arguably the top defenceman on the Tampa Bay Lightning – and then deked out a helpless-looking Ben Bishop, who owns the best save percentage in the NHL.
It was dynamic. It was magic.
“Not many guys can make that play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after a 3-2 loss to the Leafs on Tuesday night. “That was a hell of a goal.”
Frankly, it was the type of goal that makes you wonder how the Leafs could ever dream of trading away the 23-year-old centre that produced it. In fact, Kadri’s all-around game against the Lightning underscored the inherent risk that would be associated with such a deal. There is more than just promise and potential to this player; there’s also some payoff, especially lately for the Leafs.
Even still, Kadri’s name continues to swirl in NHL trade rumours and will probably keep doing so until the March 5 deadline passes or he finds a new home – whatever comes first. Prior to Tuesday’s game, two NHL executives confirmed that they were under the impression he is currently available for the right price.
Leafs general manager Dave Nonis has maintained that he’ll listen to any and all offers that come his way. It’s unlikely that he’d ever consider trading Kadri or 23-year-old defenceman Jake Gardiner unless another promising young player or prospect were coming back in the deal.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that it might not be a wise idea. This organization has a long history of bad draft picks and impatience with the few good ones that actually work out. For the Leafs to ever get where Nonis wants to take them, he needs to stop that cycle.
After 150 games, there is no question that Kadri is at least a decent NHL player. Can anyone say definitively that he won’t still develop into a great one?
Kadri believes the second goal he scored against the Lightning – the one that will be replaying on highlight shows all Wednesday morning – was the nicest of his NHL career so far. It was also his ninth point in seven games for a Leafs team that can certainly use the secondary scoring.
“It was only a matter of time,” Kadri said. “I knew I could make a contribution like that. It was just getting the flow back into things.”
You can understand why Leafs management or coach Randy Carlyle might occasionally grow a little frustrated with this player. Since he was drafted seventh overall in 2009, a pattern seems to have developed where he needs the occasional kick in the pants to get going. Kadri acknowledged that trend following Tuesday’s game against Tampa, but was quick to point out that it’s “certainly not something I want to be remembered for.”
He sounded like someone who wants to show that he can change.
The Leafs need only look to their own top line for a warning about the dangers of not allowing him to do so. James van Riemsdyk, who scored the winning goal against Tampa to establish a new career high with 41 points, had played just 198 NHL games when Philadelphia swapped him for Luke Schenn at the 2012 draft.
Do you think the Flyers would make that same trade again today?
In fact, even Carlyle has seen growth in the big right-winger since he started working with him in Toronto. Van Riemsdyk is no longer a player the coach has to fight to get a message through to – and that wasn’t always the case.
“JVR used to be a guy (who said) `Yeah, but’ … but he’s not that now,” Carlyle said. “He’s more receptive to (suggestions): ‘Yeah maybe I’ll take a look at it and I see your point of view.’ There’s a difference between coaching and criticism and sometimes it all becomes the same to players.”
Even though Kadri is just one year younger than van Riemsdyk, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is his first full 82-game NHL season. There are bound to be some ups and downs. One area where he’s performed relatively well is point production – with only six other centres that are currently 23 or under scoring at a better pace to start their NHL careers.
Three of them were No. 1 overall draft picks: Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Kadri has also recently shown some modest improvement in the faceoff dot, although he’ll have to do much better than his current conversion rate of 44.8 percent before he’s trusted to take meaningful defensive zone draws with the game on the line. But that’s an area where players have traditionally been able to make fairly sizeable gains.
If Nonis and his management team receive a tantalizing trade offer for Kadri over the next month, they’ll have to try and determine where his ceiling is before making a decision. That would be much easier to do at age 26 or 27 than it is today, which is why waiting might ultimately be the most prudent course of action.
All Kadri is focused on doing is showing how valuable he is to the Leafs now.
“I’m just ignoring (the rumours),” he said. “I don’t use it as motivation or as a concern. It doesn’t discourage me. I just try and focus on what I have to do and what I can bring to the team.
“I know I can help this team win.”