My earliest memories of the Maple Leafs are from the Wendel Clark/Doug Gilmour/Pat Burns era. So that's just shy of 20 years of watching the Leafs, a passion that has grown every day. So the following statement is not said lightly.
In almost 20 years of following the Toronto Maple Leafs, I cannot remember a Maple Leaf drafted prospect that oozed raw skill like Nazem Kadri does.
Now that's not to say the Leafs have not had some immensely talented players in their organization over that time. Mats Sundin immediately springs to mind. Phil Kessel, of course, also fits that description. But both of them were drafted elsewhere and traded for by the Leafs. The best player to have come through the Maple Leafs prospect system, having been drafted and developed by the organization, is probably Wendel Clark. But Clark's game was about a mix of skill and toughness; his skill was evident, but the combination made him a fearsome power forward.
Kadri, as Pierre McGuire coined them, possesses some "nifty mittens". He has the offensive abilities to be a consistent threat on the attack, and the creativity to generate chances out of thin air. As he matures and develops, the Leafs have been refining his game and providing him with opportunities to gather the confidence to utilize his skill, but also educate him on how to succeed against the very best defenders in the world.
Kadri has just begun to scratch the surface of his potential abilities, and lands at #6 in our countdown.
It's been fascinating watching Kadri's journey from the 7th overall pick in the 2009 Draft, to the brink of securing a full-time job in the NHL. In past years, this organization would have certainly rushed Kadri to the NHL before he was physically or mentally mature enough to handle this level of competition, become frustrated with his (lack of) progression and ultimately moved that player on to another location, where he'd either evolve into the player the Leafs always thought he would become (and come back to haunt them), or fade into the ether, another talking point for those who shoot slings and arrows at the l;eafs' inability to develop their own talent.
And in his third season removed from his draft, certain pockets of Leaf Nation have begun to become restless with Kadri's inability to break through and claim his place alongside Phil Kessel, leading the Leafs' offence for years to come. Whether that is because their own expectations of Kadri were set too high, or the ongoing building of the Maple Leafs from the ground up, Burke and his management team have been incredibly patient with the London, ON native as he has made the changes to his game to succeed at the pro level.
It's almost been like watching a martial arts master impart knowledge onto his young pupil. Slowly and surely, he adds the necessary skills layer by layer to create an unstoppable force. Were you to watch Kadri play prior to being drafted by the Leafs, and watch him now, it would be evident the strides Kadri's game has taken under the watchful eyes of the Leaf brass.
Kadri has top-end skill, and given the opportunity can become a top-siz forward in the NHL. He has taken the necessary steps to add the strength and bulk required to handle 6'4", 220 lb defenders, and physically has not been out of place this season. His propensity to try and stickhandle into high danger areas and turn the puck over is something that the Leafs would like to harness rather than completely eliminate, as that creativity is a significant component of why Kadri remains such a highly regarded prospect.
If Leaf fans want to find a positive comparable to Kadri, look no further than Cody Hodgson. Selected 10th by Vancouver the year before Kadri was drafted by the Leafs, Hodgson spent two years back in the OHL and one in the AHL where he too made the necessary adjustments to be an effective pro, and now finds himself getting prime opportunities as a secondary scoring forward for the Canucks.
In a similar fashion, Leaf fans have seen Kadri excel for one season in the OHL, and two in the AHL. While currently returned the Marlies in no small part due to his waiver exempt status, Kadri will make a very strong case to force someone else in the Leafs' top nine out of a job next season.
Birky was one of three people to have Kadri pegged at #5:
Kadri has succeeded in every task set before him as he fights to solidify himself as an NHL player. Own the OHL? Done. Own the AHL? Check. Where he has struggled is during his cups of coffee with the Leafs. His scoring prowess hasn't translated as well at the highest level. My completely un-professional projection for Kadri is a playmaking second line wing who can log big minutes on the powerplay. Reminds me at times of Mike Ribeiro and Saku Koivu