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Toronto Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski is held back as he tries to fight with Montreal's Sergei Kostitsyn during an NHL game in Montreal on Jan. 8, 2009.


Sunday afternoon was a good example of just how brightly hockey's spotlight can sometimes shine in Toronto.

In just Day 3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs' training camp and the first scrimmage for Nazem Kadri, the 19-year-old rookie's line was hemmed in its own zone several times as it struggled to clear the puck.

After the game ended, coach Ron Wilson, Kadri's linemate Kris Versteeg and the youngster himself were all faced with questions about the difficulties facing a young centre learning to play defensively in the NHL.

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"He was allowed to do a lot of things [in junior]" Wilson mused. "You find the better junior players often times don't quite understand the game defensively, it hasn't been hammered into them.

"They can go out there and use all their offensive skills that aren't as easy to get away with in the NHL. And you have to learn to play without the puck. Especially if you're a centreman. So we'll just see how he develops."

Kadri presents an interesting dilemma for the Leafs brass, one without a clear answer given their personnel. Should he make the opening night lineup, Kadri will be the third young, smallish centre on the team, making Toronto one of the league's youngest, smallest teams down the middle.

That hasn't exactly been the formula for many championship teams in this league, but Wilson said Sunday he was comfortable with using Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski and Kadri - who average six-feet tall and 189 pounds - to centre his first three lines.

"I thought Montreal wasn't very big up the middle, and they got to the conference final," Wilson said of the Canadiens' unlikely playoff run last spring. "As long as they compete hard, it doesn't matter how big you are."

Based on preliminary rosters around the league, the Leafs' top three centres would be the least experienced in terms of NHL games played (202) and smaller, weight wise, than all but four other teams (Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders).

And while Kadri's play was the focus Sunday, neither Bozak or Grabovski are prototypical, two-way centres either.

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In his 37-game NHL audition a year ago, Bozak excelled in the faceoff circle and picked up some penalty killing duties, but he was used mainly in an offence-first role given he took many of his draws in the offensive zone.

Even with that limited résumé, he's essentially locked up the No. 1 pivot role. For one, at 195 pounds, Bozak is a relative heavyweight among the Leafs' top six forwards. More importantly, he's become a close friend of winger Phil Kessel and the two have shown chemistry together to date.

Grabovski, meanwhile, has impressed in the early going in training camp, likely inspired a little by Kadri's arrival and the growing battle for a spot on the top two lines. Both Wilson and general manager Brian Burke have said they're hoping for a big year out of the 26-year-old Belarusian after he struggled to 10 goals and 35 points in an injury plagued 2009-10 season.

Even if that happens, it's not a particularly deep cast at the position, and an injury could prove devastating. Especially if Kadri's not yet ready.

Versteeg, at 24 a wise veteran on this team given his championship experience with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, didn't sugarcoat the difficulties most young centres have playing at the NHL level, thoughts that could pertain to all three centres.

"You don't always see centremen make a jump," Versteeg said, using former Blackhawks teammate Patrick Kane as an example. "If you do as a young kid, generally you see him move to wing. A guy like Kaner or someone of that sort.

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"It is going to be an adjustment period for [Kadri] He's got to learn to deal with his own end and then get into the offensive end and work hard, too. He's got all the tools and now it's up to him to go out there and do what he's got to do to make the team and show the team that they can be confident with him in their own end and in the offensive end."

Kadri admitted Sunday that his size could be a key factor in his own transition.

"That's probably the biggest difference between the OHL and NHL," Kadri said. "Here you're playing with men - you've got guys with full grown moustaches. So it's pretty tough at times, they're pretty big boys. But, you know, you don't have to be the biggest guy to play in this league anymore. It's all about body position."

The Leafs' run of five preseason games in five days begins Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre against the Ottawa Senators, and Kadri will be one of the prospects Wilson will lean on to start. The coach wants to know he won't be a liability.

"That's going to be the most important thing that he's got to get down in preseason is that he's not going to be a negative [impact]defensively," Wilson said. "I hope he picks up on what we do quickly."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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