By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 10) – Though it is theoretically possible for a young, gifted hockey player to modify habit, bidding to engender such change is often a waste of time. Innate, God-given talent must always be allowed to flourish and it rarely spawns completeness in every aspect of the game.
Until Randy Carlyle accepts such fallibility in Nazem Kadri, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be wasting a precious resource.
Never was this more apparent than during Tuesday night’s loss to Colorado at Air Canada Centre, when fans and TV viewers were treated to the absurd spectacle of Kadri centering a fourth-line unit with Colton Orr and Carter Ashton. As I Tweeted during the game, Kadri would be more effective with the puck blindfolded than either of his stone-handed wingers. It was sheer lunacy for Carlyle to saddle the club’s most skilled middle-man with line-mates that can only stifle his performance. Why even dress the player for such an illogical assignment?
Now, this isn’t to suggest that Kadri is a coach’s dream – or ever will be. But, I can tell you, without equivocation: the bench boss that allows Kadri the freedom to maximize his skating, scoring and play-making capacity is the one that will most benefit from the London, Ont. native. Perhaps reluctantly, that coach will have to live with misadventure in the neutral zone; occasional lethargy in the defensive zone, and – to this point, anyway – ineptitude in the face-off circle. On the surface, that may seem excessive to ask of any coach in the National Hockey League, but there is little alternative. The flip-side – tantalizing to all Leaf observers – could be an electrifying, point-per-game asset.
RANDY CARLYLE WHISPERS ADVICE TO NAZEM KADRI DURING GAME, WHILE COLTON ORR WATCHES PLAY. ENMITY BETWEEN CARLYLE AND KADRI COULD DERAIL LEAFS’ PROGRESS THIS SEASON. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
In his initial four years as a pro, Kadri has tutored under Ron Wilson, Dallas Eakins and Carlyle. His head must be spinning. All of the aforementioned have unassailable coaching credentials but only Eakins, it appears, properly supervised Kadri. Not that Eakins – former coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies; now in his rookie season with Edmonton Oilers – was a pushover. He demanded as much from Kadri as did Wilson before and Carlyle today. But, Kadri was a much-improved hockey player when he emerged, last season, after a 27-game stint with the Marlies during the NHL lockout. Despite his much-ballyhooed imperfection, Kadri appeared in all 48 matches with the Maple Leafs and finished second in team scoring with 44 points: eight behind Phil Kessel and a whopping 12 in front of James van Riemsdyk.
On some nights – particularly at Long Island (Feb. 28); at Buffalo (Mar. 21), and a Saturday, nationally-televised game in Ottawa (Mar. 30) – Kid Kadri was, by several lengths, the most dominant figure on the ice.
That such achievement occurred with Carlyle behind the bench raises many questions about the current stalemate between coach and player. Something must have clicked a year ago, with Kadri at nearly a point per game and a more-than respectable plus-15 at season’s end. Did Kadri forget how to play over the summer or did Carlyle forget how to coach? Neither seems plausible. What it leads to, I sense, is generation-gap strife that cannot be laid solely on Carlyle. As it pertains to nightly deployment, he is undeniably the boss – whether Kadri, me, you, or anyone not named David Nonis likes it. As such, there is requirement for Kadri to appease Carlyle. The question is: to what degree?
And, if Carlyle is expecting, from Kadri, thoroughness as a player that may not be reasonable, what becomes the solution? We all know the path of least resistance is for Nonis to trade Kadri and alleviate Carlyle’s exasperation. Such a blueprint persisted over the summer when Nonis cut ties with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur – both elemental to the Leafs attack. Already this season, the coach has developed animus toward Kadri and Jake Gardiner – arguably, with Kessel, the most gifted components of the team. At some point, there has to be a meeting of the minds; a form of compromise that best serves the hockey club. Otherwise, and given a dearth of skill at the critical center-ice spot, Maple Leafs will inevitably (and avoidably) founder.
Perhaps this is a circumstance best-handled collectively. Leafs have a terrific and much-underplayed asset in vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin. As captain of some very good Philadelphia Flyer teams in the 1980’s, Poulin ranked among the most respected figures in the NHL. He is cerebral, exceptionally well-spoken, and given his coaching success at the NCAA level with Notre Dame, a proven leader. On the club periphery are former Leaf captains George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark – all of whom combined character, communication and work ethic in their playing careers. Senior adviser and twice-former Leaf GM Cliff Fletcher has forever been acknowledged as a conciliatory presence; able to work both sides of the floor.
Such resources are invaluable to the Blue and White and should be called upon to help settle fragile, potentially team-altering matters. Otherwise, personality conflict will fester, with no positive result.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO]