TORONTO -- A work in progress.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri has been called that so often it might as well be his middle name.
And yet 15 games into his third full season with the Maple Leafs, Kadri is still working toward establishing himself as a bona fide top-two center with the team. The 24-year-old London, Ontario, native who was the seventh pick in the 2009 NHL Draft started the season as Toronto's No. 2 pivot behind Tyler Bozak, who has skated the last few seasons between left wing James van Riemsdyk and right wing Phil Kessel.
When that trio failed to light it up early, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle replaced Bozak, not a prototypical top-line center, though he has been productive as well as the defensive conscience on the line, with Kadri.
"I haven't gotten too much opportunity over the past couple of years, but it is always nice to play with Phil," Kadri said. "He's a great player. The thing with this team is we need all the lines to contribute and secondary third- and fourth-line scoring is definitely going to increase our chances of winning."
Kessel, 27, has been a top-10 scorer the past three years. Get him the puck in the open and there's a good chance you’ll add to your assist total.
"You've got to give him space to make plays because he's got the ability to beat guys," Kadri said. "Depending on who you play with you have to make adjustments in terms of moving toward them to support the puck or, as with Phil, you've got to give him space and separate yourself in order to get open."
The Maple Leafs knew they were getting a creative offensive player in Kadri when they drafted him, but they also knew there were parts of his game that would need adjusting before he was able to be a full-time NHL player.
For starters, he had to improve his defensive play. In his first three seasons as a pro Kadri spent plenty of time with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, where coach Dallas Eakins worked doggedly on getting Kadri to become a more complete player. His play away from the puck was a concern, but Eakins drove home the message that until he became trustworthy in both ends of the ice, Kadri was not likely to make the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis.
In 2012-13 Kadri finally joined the Maple Leafs following the lockout and in 48 games scored 18 goals and 40 points, placing second in club scoring behind Kessel. Last season he was third in Maple Leafs scoring with 20 goals and 50 points.
Alas, the transfer to the top line with Kessel and van Riemsdyk did not last. Carlyle reunited Bozak with his old wings the past two games and Kadri skated on a line with left wing Richard Panik and right wing David Clarkson. Kadri had two assists Saturday in Toronto's 5-4 win against the New York Rangers and was held off the score sheet in Sunday’s 5-3 win against the Ottawa Senators.
In the games he patrolled the top line, Kadri noticed a difference in the caliber of player he faced versus what he was used to on the second line.
"Everyone has their top guys matched up against Phil and whoever he is playing with, so a lot of nights we were seeing the top two defensemen every shift," Kadri said. "It is an excellent challenge and you just have to bring your 'A' game. When you are playing against the top guys you have to make sure you don't take a shift off, because that could be the shift where the puck ends up in the back of your net."
There is no question the Maple Leafs are still looking for Kadri to take his game to the next level. Carlyle has never been shy about stating what his expectations are for Kadri, who has four goals and seven points in 15 games.
"In some situations he has looked good and in other situations I think Nazem is a player we are looking for to continue to show growth," Carlyle said. "At times he takes steps forward and at times he appears to be in neutral, but that's not any different than any young player. We are putting him in some tougher situations this year. He's up against the other team’s top or second line. He has to move his feet and be more physical."
Kadri talked about the fact his focus sometimes wanders and how he is trying to be better in that regard.
"Sometimes you can be totally focused and zoned in on the game," Kadri said. "In talking to the team therapist and people who know the body and mind, they say the male brain doesn't fully develop until they are 26, so it obviously takes a bit of time. You want to learn as quickly as you can, but you can't be great every single night. That said, most nights you have to be."
Author: Mike Brophy | NHL.com Correspondent