Expectation: Nazem Kadri – Part III

Nazem Kadri
What can we expect from Nazem Kadri? (Tony Ding/Icon SMI)

Expectation: Nazem Kadri is a three-part series.
Part I is available here.
Part II is available here.

Expectation. Everyone deals with expectation. It’s ever-present for those trying to make it in the NHL. And the weight of expectation is heavier for some than for others.

For Nazem Kadri, expectations have been high. He was the first first-round draft pick of the Brian Burke regime. Between Burke’s announcements he was going to try to land John Tavares, the then-recent departure of Mats Sundin, the desire to see the Leafs improve, and the long list of poor draft selections in the franchise’s history, the selection of Kadri at slot number 7 was, for some, going to be a defining moment for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It didn’t help that a few years later, one Toronto sportswriter decided it was time to hand Kadri number 13, Sundin’s old number, as an affirmation that the franchise was ready to confer on him the mantle of stardom.

And so where are things now? To borrow a line from a popular Maple Leaf blogger, Will (Kadri) be a so-called “top-six” scorer, an average NHL’er, a bust?’ It’s difficult to say for certain, but perhaps a look at Kadri’s draft class as well as some historical perspective will help.

Consider Kadri’s draft position, 7th overall. A list of the 7th picks from 1982-2011 reveals an interesting mix of players. Recent pick Mark Scheifele is highly touted, and Jeff Skinner has a Calder Trophy to his name. Ryan Suter is among the best at his position, and Shane Doan and Jason Arnott have been valuable players for their respective teams. A number of others (Joffrey Lupul, Manny Malhotra, Darryl Sydor, Martin Gelinas, Luke Richardson, Ulf Dahlen and Russ Courtnall) have carved out decent NHL careers. Then there is Jack Skille, who some wonder if the chance to be a star is fading, and there is Mike Komisarek, who is feeling the wrath of Toronto fans as an overpaid and overhyped defenceman. And finally, there are those like Lars Jonsson, Kris Beech, Jamie Storr, Ryan Sittler, Alek Stojanov and Dan Woodley, who never caught on as NHL players. Those last 6 names represent fully 20% of the number 7 overall picks listed. In other words, 1 in 5 players selected 7th overall over the last 30 years failed to be a regular NHL player.

It seems fair to say that a 7th overall draft selection is one of those players who could be a top-6 forward or 3-4 defender just as easily as he could never develop further than the proverbial ‘cup of coffee’ guy. In that respect (as with so many hockey players drafted at any position), it must be acknowledged that Kadri should not be expected to be a star simply by virtue of being drafted where he was.

What about Kadri’s draft year, 2009? It’s fair to say some drafts are simply better stocked with good, NHL-capable players, so how is the class of 2009 doing? The top 4 draft picks moved directly to the NHL. John Tavares leads the Islanders as their top centre; Victor Hedman is a mainstay on Tampa’s blueline; Matt Duchene is a top-6 forward in Colorado; Evander Kane has hit the 30-goal plateau on Winnipeg’s top line. Taking a round number such as 100 NHL games, and cutting it off at the lowest draft choice to have played 100 games, other notable draft picks are Oliver Ekman-Larsson (PHX 6), Magnum Paajarvi-Svensson (EDM 10), Dmitri Kulikov (FLA 14), Nick Leddy (MIN 16), Marcus Johansson (WAS 24). Ryan O’Reilly (COL 33) and Kyle Clifford (LAK 35). That accounts for only 11 of the first 35 picks of the 2009 draft, at this point, slightly more than 30%.

Kadri has played in 51 NHL contests, 23rd most in his draft class. He’s played 12 fewer regular season and 11 fewer NHL playoff games than Brayden Schenn, who is viewed by some as the much better prospect, and was someone often coveted by Leaf fans and the media. But Kadri has already gained more NHL experience than some of the other ‘names’ people may be familiar with from the 2009 draft. Team Canada standouts Ryan Ellis and Calvin de Haan, former Sabre now Canuck Zack Kassian, and Ranger prospects Chris Kreider and Tim Erixon have all seen less NHL ice than Kadri.

So, it may be fair to say that while Kadri has not been an impact player, he’s not been a bust either. It’s far too early to write off his career. For all we know, he could have won a spot with the Leafs had there been no lockout, rather than playing with the AHL Marlies. And, Nazem Kadri has produced with the Marlies. In his first 2 seasons, he scored 35 goals and 81 points in 92 games, a 0.88ppg pace and recorded a +4 rating. His 2012-13 began slowly, only 3 assists in 9 games earning him a healthy scratch, However, he has scored 5 goals and 10 assists in 11 games since, including a recent 2 goal performance against Rochester which included this overtime winner:

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And for good measure, Kadri added a game winner the next evening, this time against Lake Erie, to win the Marlies’ third game in three nights:

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At this point, Nazem Kadri is still only 22 years old. He’s listed as 6′, 185 pounds, and that makes him a little small by NHL standards. Small players have played in this league before with some success. Kadri seems to lack a certain mean streak that some smaller players, like Doug Gilmour and Theoren Fleury had. But, he does have skill. It’s these outbursts of offence, and the apparent skill level, that have Leaf fans frustrated, hopeful, and even disappointed that he has not been able to, or has not been given the proper opportunity, at the NHL level. Frankly, those feelings are more a product of expectation borne from years of missed playoffs and the various proclamations of an improved team built ‘the right way’ by the then-new general manager. Comparatively, Kadri actually fares well versus just about everyone drafted 5th overall or later in 2009.

Nazem Kadri is developing pretty well as it is. He is not likely to be a franchise saviour, nor an offensive wizard, or even much more than a nice 50-60 point second-line NHLer. He still needs to learn how to play in a big-man’s game without getting pushed around, and he still needs to hone his game so that when he isn’t dazzling with his dangle or snapping shots on net, he is a contributor to his team’s effort. Those things take time. Many young, smaller players take a few years to develop a certain savvy. They learn the tricks to use their speed, avoid being muscled off the puck, so that they can exhibit their skill. It’s been seen with players like Martin St. Louis and Marc Savard – guys who took a couple years before they matured into good, full-time NHL players. Does Kadri have the same kind of skill to be as good as those guys? Time will tell, but at 22, Kadri still has a lot to learn before he approaches those levels.

Expectation is a difficult thing. In Toronto, expectations run high. But if fans of the Leafs can learn to temper those expectations just a bit, Nazem Kadri may just grow into a very good Maple Leaf.