Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri ready to battle for spot on NHL team

TORONTO – Nazem Kadri knows nothing will be handed to him by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Even though the organization’s top prospect was given two veteran wingers during his first practice at training camp on Saturday, Kadri isn’t taking anything for granted. The seventh overall pick from 2009 figures he’ll be in tough to earn a job with the big team.

“Everyone’s fighting for jobs here—may the best man win,” said Kadri. “I know all the guys don’t want to be playing in the minors. They want to be playing for the real club, the real Toronto Maple Leafs. You’ve got some great players here and it’s just going to be a competition.

“We’ll see who comes out on top.”

The Leafs essentially have five centres competing for four jobs—although there’s the possibility one could be moved to the wing to accommodate the entire group. Tyler Bozak is slated to fill the No. 1 role while Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson battle for the other three spots.

For the skilled Kadri to make the team, he’ll have to show that he’s ready to play on one of the top two lines.

He was encouraged to find himself skating between Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong—two of the team’s top off-season acquisitions—during practice on Saturday afternoon.

“They’re great hockey players,” said Kadri. “Just for the coach to kind of throw them on my wing definitely means a lot. It shows a lot of confidence in me.”

Coach Ron Wilson has split the 64 players at training camp into three teams. Two of them scrimmaged against one another on Saturday while Kadri’s squad just practised.

The scrimmage was played at a fairly high pace and left Wilson praising one of the other players who is vying for a spot as a scoring line centre.

“One of the most impressive players for me was Grabovski,” said Wilson. “He looks like he did two years ago. I think all of the skating work he did in the summertime (has helped), and he wants to rebound after last year. It didn’t matter who he is playing with—because he was out there with a lot of rookies or minor-leaguers—but he was a dominant player.”

The 26-year-old is coming off a frustrating season that saw him miss time with a fractured wrist. Grabovski had 10 goals and 35 points in 59 games after scoring 20 times as a rookie the season before.

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“I think Grabo didn’t like the way he played last year,” said Wilson. “He wants to bounce back and be a 25 goal-scorer, be a 60, 65-point guy. And he can do it.

“If he’s as focused as he is right now, it’s good for us and great for him.”

Grabovski is the first to acknowledge he has something to prove.

“Everybody knows this year is very important us,” he said. “For coach stuff, for me, for every guy. It doesn’t matter who play first line, second line, third line.

“I just want to play and play my best.”

After a summer spent focusing on getting ready for this training camp, Kadri is thrilled it’s finally arrived. He was one of the final cuts a year ago and managed to get in his first NHL game as an emergency callup on Feb. 8.

Still a teenager (he turns 20 on Oct. 6), he’s received a lot of attention in the run-up to the season and it will only intensify once the exhibition schedule starts next week.

The Leafs have done their best to shield him from the spotlight. Kadri was kept from speaking to the media during the final three days of the rookie tournament in his hometown of London, Ont., last week.

He greeted reporters with a big smile when he came out to answer questions on Saturday.

“I missed you guys,” said Kadri. “Sometimes you’ve just got to focus on hockey and the task at hand. I’ve got a few things coming up here that I’m going to have to put all my focus and attention on.

“I’m just getting ready for the real thing.”

Kadri has entered training camp wearing the same team-issued No. 43 sweater he had on a year ago. However, it might not be a permanent thing if he cracks the NHL roster.

“It was kind of the number I was just assigned,” said Kadri, who wore No. 91 with the OHL’s London Knights. “I don’t know if I’m going to be changing it or not. I guess we’ll find out soon.”