TORONTO - Nazem Kadri's path to the NHL is going to include a stop in the American Hockey League.
The Toronto Maple Leafs assigned their top prospect to the AHL Marlies on Monday as they trimmed the roster ahead of the regular season. Kadri struggled during his second NHL training camp and was unable to hold on to a spot that had been earmarked for him.
When GM Brian Burke delivered the bad news, the former first-round pick wasn't surprised.
"I think Nazem has accepted what's gone on here, that he's made his own bed," said Burke. "He's been very mature about it. I think he's been wonderful with you folks (the media), dealing with all this stuff. And if I could go back to the draft and you give me the microphone again, I would take Nazem Kadri again.
"I told him that this morning. We believe in Nazem as a hockey player and a person, he's going to be fine. He's not ready to play in the top six (forwards) right just yet."
The centre, who turns 20 this week, was the focal point of a training camp that started with him being "pencilled" into the team's lineup. However, Burke felt he struggled with the speed of the game and decided that the minors were the best place for him to find his legs.
It's a strategy the GM has used successfully in the past. While with Anaheim, Burke sent both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for stints in the AHL during their rookie seasons and watched both develop into effective players who helped the Ducks win the Stanley Cup a year later.
Kadri will probably be first in line for a callup to the Leafs this season, especially if he puts up good offensive numbers with the Marlies.
"There are very few (teenagers) that are ready to step in and make a contribution like we need him to make," said Burke. "He's got to play on our top six (forwards) if he's going to stay here. And he's got to respect the American Hockey League, it's a hell of a league.
"I told him I gave Ryan Getzlaf the same speech five years ago."
The Leafs made a number of roster moves Monday. Forwards Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi were also sent to the Marlies along with goaltender Jussi Rynnas.
Defenceman Danny Richmond and forwards Jay Rosehill and Mike Zigomanis were placed on waivers. Burke said Zigomanis will remain with the Leafs if he goes unclaimed—while Richmond and Rosehill would likely be assigned to the AHL.
The most fortunate player remaining with the team is centre John Mitchell, who was criticized by coach Ron Wilson throughout training camp and only appeared in four of nine pre-season games. Burke said his past performance in the NHL helped him earn a job over Hanson.
But he better not get too comfortable.
"We've got some people on a chihuahua leash," said Burke. "That's the term we use internally."
The Leafs are currently carrying 24 players on their roster—although defencemen Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff are both nursing injuries. As it stands, they have 13 forwards (assuming Zigomanis clears waivers), nine defencemen and two goaltenders.
Burke is happy about his top two forward lines. Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and newcomer Kris Versteeg looked extremely good together during the pre-season while Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur impressed as well.
"We think we have two lines, a top six group, for the first time since I've been here," said Burke.
The biggest surprise to make the team was centre Tim Brent. The 26-year-old journeyman has appeared in 19 career NHL games, but will start the year on the Leafs checking unit with wingers Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom.
Toronto opens its schedule at home to Montreal on Thursday night. Without making any bold proclamations, Burke indicated that he was feeling optimistic about his team's chances.
"It's not a secret—my view of the organization since I got here has been that we didn't want to win badly enough," he said. "We turned that group over. We think we have a good group that wants to win and will pay the price to win.
"We'll find out starting Thursday if we're right or not."
Kadri will be watching on TV.
The expectations for the former London Knights scoring star rose sharply after he was drafted seventh overall in 2009. Burke and the team's management staff wrestled with how best to handle their top prospect—his picture appears on tickets to four home games this season—and feel satisfied that they didn't ask too much of him.
"I think we've struck the right balance," said Burke. "If the expectations are enough to trip a young man in a Canadian market then we drafted the wrong young man. You need to be a special guy to play in Canadian market, especially in Toronto.
"We think we drafted the right guy."
Kadri displayed a hint of his potential during a pre-season game in Ottawa where he scored twice. It just wasn't there consistently enough for him to earn an NHL job at this time.
Fortunately for Kadri, he'll remain close in proximity to the Leafs brass—skating under the same roof at the team's practice facility while playing home games a short drive away from the Air Canada Centre.
Despite wearing a Toronto Marlies sweater, he's not very far from the NHL.
"We know how good (Nazem's) going to be," Wilson said Saturday night. "It's just being patient and allowing him to develop the best way. He's only 300 feet in the other (practice) rink."