With just seven games left on the schedule for the 2010-2011 NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still in the hunt for the playoffs. Currently sitting five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs need to keep winning and hope that they get the help they need from the teams ahead of them to sneak into the postseason. Buoyed by the excellent goaltending of James Reimer, the Leafs are looking like a cohesive team committed to pushing as hard as they can towards the common goal of a playoff berth. With any good team, every player has to contribute and commit to the all-important team-first philosophy. Nazem Kadri, recently recalled for his second stint with the big club, is showing he is ready to stick around this time.
Critics of Nazem Kadri were always quick to point out that he was a turnover machine, tried to force plays that just weren’t available to him, and lacked the physical toughness necessary to be an impact player at the NHL level. In his one-game emergency recall last February against the San Jose Sharks, Kadri got a taste of what life in the NHL is like, facing off against the likes of Joe Thornton and playing against a team with four players gearing up to play for Canada at the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics. Understandably, Kadri was somewhat overmatched, having played something like 7 games in 9 nights; but in a game the Leafs dropped by a score of 2-1, he was not the reason the team lost.
During his first recall from the Marlies this season, Kadri was given chances to play on the top two forward lines, but often found his icetime scaled back late in games – a sign that Ron Wilson wasn’t completely confident in his defensive responsibility. The turnovers were still there, and though he was unable to find the back of the net, Kadri generated chances. Ultimately, he would be returned to the Marlies for additional work.
While he was down with the Marlies, the team underwent a few changes. Joffrey Lupul was acquired to fill out the top six forwards, and with the Marlies in a tight playoff race of their own, it was unclear whether or not Nazem Kadri would see any more time with the big club before season’s end. Of course, the injury bug (which the Leafs have been fairly fortunate with this season) always provides challenges to management and opportunity to players. When Colby Armstrong took a shot off the foot against the Buffalo Sabres and it was revealed to be broken, an opportunity was created for someone to step in and fill the void on the third line.
Nazem Kadri, not ever slated to play on a third line, wasn’t the most obvious choice, but since his return to the NHL, he’s shown how his game has grown in his time with the Marlies. Case in point, his first NHL goal against the Boston Bruins where he was covering the defenceman at the point. Playing on the wing, Kadri isn’t being relied on for draws, but playing on the third line is a testament to how his defensive game has grown.
His icetime late in close games still dips a bit, as Wilson relies on some more veteran guys in key situations, but the turnovers are fewer and less glaring than in his early days as a professional. Rather than trying to stickhandle through a minefield of opposing players, Kadri is putting the puck deep and then working down low along the boards to get it back.
Dallas Eakins deserves a lot of credit for helping Kadri eliminate the turnovers from his game and help prepare him to contribute at the NHL level during such a critical stretch of hockey for the Toronto organizations. Kadri paid thanks to Eakins in his post-game interview with Elliotte Friedman, and indeed Eakins’ work has been instrumental in the Leafs’ success throughout the season as contributions from players like Joey Crabb, Darryl Boyce, Keith Aulie and Nazem Kadri have helped the Leafs stay in the playoff race.
Coming down to the final seven games of the season to determine whether the Leafs make the playoffs is a vast improvement over last season’s result, and is likely more than anyone expected prior to the All-Star break. The future is on display with the Leafs, and they’re competitive now. It’s an exciting time to be a Leafs fan.