TORONTO – The kid sure is stubborn.
Nazem Kadri knows that his chances of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season are extremely slim, but that hasn’t kept him from showing a real sense of occasion during training camp.
The first-round pick appeared to be having a quiet night Tuesday until he tied the game late in the third period and scored the shootout winner in Toronto’s 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in pre-season action. Afterwards, he made no secret of the fact that he hopes the performance will buy him some more time with the big team.
“Hopefully, I’m making the decision hard,” said Kadri. “I appreciate (coach) Ron (Wilson) giving me the opportunity to go out there in some big situations. I think it’s really building my confidence.”
Wilson was again careful not to give the 18-year-old too much praise.
However, the coach did seem impressed with Kadri’s goal to tie the game at 18:52 of the third period. On the play, he got the puck back to the point before sneaking in off the wing and burying a rebound over Penguins goalie John Curry.
“All it takes special players is one moment and they can change the outcome (of a game),” said Wilson. “He did. Just being in the right spot at the right time, he picked up the puck and buried it big time.”
Viktor Stalberg also scored in regulation and Vesa Toskala made 26 saves for Toronto (4-1-0).
Ryan Bayda and Chris Conner replied for the Penguins (1-2-2), who elected to leave stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury at home and still made a game of it.
“We had a puck stop on the goal-line tonight and we had a couple of other good chances,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s what you want to see in the pre-season, you want to be generating chances and seeing how the team plays in its own zone.”
The defending Stanley Cup champions have very few available jobs. Bayda and Conner are among the players trying to earn a spot at forward and each helped their chance by scoring in the first period.
The Maple Leafs kid line of Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson combined to narrow the score to 2-1. Hanson worked the puck in front of the goal and Stalberg ended up slamming a rebound behind Brent Johnson at 7:33 of the second period.
The trio of rookies have all shown potential in the pre-season, but there might not end up being room for any of them on the roster either.
“Have they stolen anybody’s job? Not in my estimation,” said Wilson. “A lot of guys are going to have to start in the minors (and) bide their time.”
Even still, Stalberg remains undeterred: “As long as you’re up here, you’ve got a chance.”
The Maple Leafs are currently carrying 36 players and will need to get down to 23 before hosting Montreal in the regular season-opener on Oct. 1.
They may also be down one additional man after Jamal Mayers needed to be helped off the ice during the second period. He appeared to get knocked out after colliding with Pittsburgh’s Tim Wallace and did not return.
“He got his bell rung,” said Wilson.
With four remaining pre-season games, there is still plenty of opportunity for Wilson and GM Brian Burke to assess what they have.
Ever since selecting Kadri with the seventh pick at the draft in June, the Leafs brass has made it clear that he wasn’t in their plans for this season. He’s gone on to exceed some expectations at training camp – even his own.
“I didn’t really expect this,” said Kadri. “I thought I wouldn’t get as much as ice time. Like I’ve been saying, I really appreciate the support and confidence that Ron is showing in me. I’m making the best of it.”
Ultimately, he’s likely to be spend another season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
No matter what happens, the Leafs will be watching closely and expecting big things.
“If he goes back to junior, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get 100 points in the OHL,” said Wilson. “With the hockey sense I’ve seen him show and (the) speed.
“He’s very confident in a positive way. He really believes in himself.”
Notes: Newly acquired Leafs winger Phil Kessel watched from the press box … Toronto was 3-1-0 against the Penguins last season … The Maple Leafs assigned forwards Andre Deveaux, Ben Ondrus, Alex Foster and Ryan Hamilton to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies before the game … Announced attendance was 18,910 – roughly 7,000 more than the Toronto Blue Jays drew down the street at Rogers Centre.