Apr 5, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri (43) skates against the Winnipeg Jets at the Air Canada Centre. Winnipeg defeated Toronto 4-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs Put Their Faith in Nazem Kadri

If you’re Nazem Kadri, there’s a silver lining to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ failure to land Brad Richards, Joe Thornton or some other big name centerman this off-season: it’s means your chance to shine has finally arrived.

As we already know, the Leafs desperately need a reliable centerman to anchor the team’s second unit. Tyler Bozak is a capable, if not splashy or elite, option on the first line. His defensive skills help offset the liability of playing Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk at top minutes.

Beyond Bozak, however, the team doesn’t really have any other reliable options at center. They’ve opted to take a chance on Petri Kontiola and Mike Santorelli this season, but there’s no guarantee how (or even if) these players will fit on the team. Expectations for Kontiola, in particular, should be tempered somewhat. It’s one thing to collect points in the KHL, but it’s something entirely different to accomplish the same task in the NHL.

The NHL is the world’s top hockey league, brimming with talented players, and we’ve seen the Leafs’ eagerness to add players from other leagues fail in the past. Leo Komarov, for all his speed and toughness, has left some fans disappointed while Jonas Gustavsson‘s time in Toronto was (fairly or unfairly) very controversial.

This suggests that Kadri, not Kontiola or Santorelli who joins Toronto as an inconsistent journeyman from Vancouver, is the Leafs’ best option to start the season as the second line centerman. The idea of Kadri playing a larger role on the team shouldn’t surprise anyone – he’s one of their best future assets – but is he ready to assume this role now?

Kadri has played a total of 177 games at the NHL level, recording 113 points (46 goals, 67 assists) in the process. He recorded 44 of these points in 48 games during the shortened 2012-2013 season (his best campaign to date), but slipped this past season, recording 50 points in 78 games. That’s quite the drop in production and it’s something that must be addressed.

Who’s the real Kadri? A 50 point performance is enough to secure the second line center job on the Leafs, but if Kadri could return to point-per-game status, there’s little to hold him back from becoming the center on the team.

Having said all this, we saw Kadri assume a more physical role on the team last season, tripling his previous year’s total for penalty minutes, and his average playing time per game increased by over a minute. If the drop in production is related to Kadri becoming a better all around player, it can be excused. This team has seen too many one-dimensional players in the past (remember Jason Allison?).

Between Kadri, Komarov and Cody Franson, the Leafs will have three big hitters in their lineup. Head coach Randy Carlyle should appreciate that.

(For doubters, Kadri delivered 141 hits last season, which put him in a tie for 101st overall in the league. He had delivered 48 hits in 2012-2013 (tied for 193rd overall), underscoring his recent development in this area. Franson ranked second overall last season while Komarov ranked fifth overall in 2012-2013.)

What are your thoughts? Is Kadri the Leafs’ best option to center the second line? Is he ready for added responsibilities?

Regardless of whether he’s ready for the role, the Leafs might have no real choice: they didn’t do enough during the free agency period to give themselves better options.

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Tags: Brad Richards Cody Franson James Van Riemsdyk Jason Allison Joe Thornton Jonas Gustavsson Leo Komarov Mike Santorelli Nazem Kadri Petri Kontiola Phil Kessel Randy Carlyle Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler Bozak

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