After one full week of pre-season action the Toronto Maple Leafs roster is beginning to take shape. With a mild record of 3-2-1 and most rookies already cut from the roster, Ron Wilson will begin to erase the penciled names and solidify them in ink aiming towards the opening night line-up. One name sure to be missing from that opening night line-up is Nazem Kadri. An unimpressive performance thus far has Kadri all but packing his bags for the AHL, although the 19 year old will get what Wilson called “one more crack” as he draws into the line-up for a tilt with provincial rival Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. With high hopes and expectations of him Wilson and Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke watched Kadri and perhaps needed to look much closer in order to notice him. With his impressive performance from last pre-season in mind, Kadri took to the ice this year with greater pressure, and even more weight on his shoulders. Weight that Burke and Wilson hoped he could endure after bulking up his frame throughout the off-season. When asked about Kadri’s performance or lack there of Burke stated, “He’s not played anywhere near to what we had hoped for and expected. I don’t know why that is and he’s running out of time. This is not uncommon at all with a young player, when there’s a lot of hype, maybe a lot of pressure on a nearly hometown kid. Whatever the reasons, we haven’t lost faith at all in Nazem Kadri but his play right now indicates that he’s not ready to contribute at this level.” While he does have one last chance to show why the Leafs chose him 7th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, it seems even a multi-point game will not keep him from starting his professional career in the AHL.
A trio that has impressed Burke and Wilson has been the experimental number one line of Kris Versteeg, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. Proving his worth as Burke’s prize acquisition of the summer, Versteeg has been one of the better players throughout camp and shows no signs of a long Stanley Cup hangover. The crafty winger has displayed his skill with and without the puck and has become a welcomed addition to the new character within the Leafs locker room. Phil Kessel looks to continue his goal scoring progress of last season, and with a full summer of training and not being sidelined for the first month of action this time around, he seems prepared to do so. After a strong rookie season last year, Tyler Bozak worked hard over the summer in order to improve what may have been the knock against him, in his ability to control and protect the puck. His core strength has been on display as he seems to battle harder down low and against the boards, adding to his vision and smarts with the puck. Offense being the apparent weakness of this Leaf team, these three will be looked upon to contribute night in and night out in order to keep pace within the Eastern Conference.
An intriguing battle for a position on the back end will result in some interesting Burke/Wilson discussions. The young Carl Gunnarsson has continued where he left off last year, looking as steady as a veteran in most situations while showing his ability to skate with and move the puck. Making life harder for Burke and Wilson is another summer free agent signing in Brett Lebda. Although he was brought in to fill the void left by a potential Tomas Kaberle trade, Burke will be reluctant to see his signing become a healthy scratch for part of the season. The decision will have time to sort itself out as Lebda will be sidelined for 2-3 weeks with an injury, but if the play of Gunnarsson continues to progress through the regular season, Burke and Wilson will have their work cut out in order to maintain and determine their defensive depth.
Continuing his plan to build from the net out, and giving goaltender guru Francois Allaire fresh canvases to work with, Burke signed European and NCAA Free Agent, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens. Both turned in respectable performances, most notably at the Rookie Tournament in London, and will keep Allaire busy as he bounces from the Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre. With J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson backstopping for the Leafs, it seems a stable of goaltending prospects could be a strong point for the Leafs in seasons to come.
No review could be complete without a few surprises. While some may see Nazem Kadri playing his way onto the Marlies as one, for me it is the play of two young defenders. Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker have both displayed their talents while not looking out of place. Holzer is a big body d-man with great positional awareness, while Blacker showed his composure with the puck and his ability to jump into the play without being caught deep. Working their way up the depth charts, both these youngsters are on their way to wearing a Leafs jersey full-time and will look to improve on what was a solid pre-season experience.
Grading the first week of pre-season is a difficult task as teams ice what is mostly a rookie line-up. Although the exhibition report card may be irrelevant to Burke and Wilson, they will be keeping a close eye on the progress of their team over the next week. A week that will see the opening night line-up take form and prepare to correct what went wrong a year ago.
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About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!