Nazem Kadri knows his chances of making this year’s edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs are slim.
He has certainly not made the decision-making process easy for team brass, however.
After Toronto’s 3-2 victory over a watered-down version of the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night, Kadri pulled no punches when asked if he hopes his performance will buy him some more time with the big team.
“Hopefully, I’m making the decision hard,” Kadri said. “I appreciate [coach] Ron [Wilson] giving me the opportunity to go out there in some big situations. I think it’s really building my confidence.”
Kadri’s performances in four pre-season games to date have been solid, but the bench boss recently said that “Unless [Kadri] can make the top two lines, he’ll be in junior, and I don’t see much of a chance of that [making Leafs lineup] the way the other guys have played.
“We like the way Nazem’s played and in some situations, he might be ready,” Wilson said. “We’ll get him a couple more exhibition games, then make a decision.”
Ever since selecting Kadri with the seventh overall pick at the draft in June, team officials have made it known that the London, Ontario native was not in their plans for this season.
That has not held him back from impressing people, including himself.
“I didn’t really expect this,” Kadri said. “I thought I wouldn’t get as much as ice time.”
“Like I’ve been saying, I really appreciate the support and confidence that Ron is showing in me. I’m making the best of it.”
Ultimately, it is likely Kadri will be rejoining the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Regardless, the Leafs organization will be watching him intently from a distance.
“If he goes back to junior, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get 100 points in the OHL,” Wilson said. “He’s very confident in a positive way. He really believes in himself.”
Kadri, along with rookie forwards Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, and Viktor Stalberg survived the initial wave of cuts at Leafs camp, but all remain on the bubble to make the final roster.
“We’ve got some young guys, I guess you could say they’ve earned jobs, but have they stolen anybody’s job? Not in my estimation,” Wilson said.
“They haven’t knocked out anybody. A lot of guys will have to start in the minors, bide their time and learn a few things about being consistent. If it was last year, different story.”
Knowing the chips are stacked against him being one of the 23 players to open the regular season at home against the visiting Montreal Canadiens a week from Thursday hasn’t broken his spirits though.
“Coming to camp has taught me a lot about myself.” Kadri said. “I tried to work my hardest every single shift and if I get sent down, I’ll keep my head high and take a crack at that world junior team.”
Wilson stated the strong play of Kadri has put him in a no-win situation with his critics.
“If I keep Kadri, you guys will say it’s a stupid decision,” he said. “If I send Kadri down, you guys will say it’s a stupid decision. I can live with that. I’ll make a stupid decision and we’ll move on.”
Hypothetically, the Leafs could start the season with Kadri and send him back to junior before the 10-game mark without altering his contract status.
“I’d like to play nine regular-season games because I know there’s a big difference between exhibition games and regular-season games,” Kadri said.
In Vancouver, a similar development has been witnessed this pre-season with Cody Hodgson.
The young centreman has gone from someone who was destined to earn a spot with the Canucks to a player who is now in limbo.
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged Hodgson isn’t the first outstanding junior player to struggle with attempting to break into the NHL.
“This is a tough league to make,” Vigneault said. “It takes adjustments, whether you are coming out of junior or coming out of the American league.”