TORONTO -- The local reaction to Nazem Kadri's breakout NHL season for the Toronto Maple Leafs has varied, ranging from, "What took you so long?" to "Wow, I thought you'd have to be traded to finally make it here."
The reality, though, is after a few false starts, the 22-year-old is proving beyond any reasonable doubt he belongs in the NHL. Entering their game Monday against the New York Rangers, Kadri leads the Maple Leafs with 17 goals, and his team-best 39 points place him 11th in the League. There have been times in the past few weeks when he has been comfortably inside the top 10, and it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest he ultimately will finish there.
Not bad for someone who, only a few months ago, was a healthy scratch with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. While Kadri has not yet earned the role of No. 1 center on a team trying to make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004 -- that spot belongs to Tyler Bozak, who skates between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk -- he has become a main cog in Toronto's blossoming offense. When Kadri and left wing Joffrey Lupul are in the lineup together, they have shown signs of becoming a dynamic duo.
Mark Fraser, who played with Kadri on the Marlies last season and again during the NHL lockout this season. "I have no doubt that he believed he could do this in the NHL, but to do it in your first full season is pretty impressive."
The fact of the matter is the Maple Leafs' patience with Kadri has been equally impressive. When a team struggles for as long as Toronto has -- not having won the Stanley Cup since 1967 -- people want instant results from their supposed blue-chip prospects. Toronto selected Kadri with the seventh pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and elected to send him back for a fourth season of junior with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He had a cup of coffee with the Maple Leafs that season, playing one game, then played 29 games in 2010-11 and 21 in 2011-12. However, it was clear he was not ready for full-time NHL employment.
The Maple Leafs wanted him to be less of a high-risk/high-return player when he had the puck and requested he put in more effort on defense when he didn't have it. However, Kadri never looked like a player ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL. He had 17 goals and 41 points in 44 games in 2010-11 and 18 goals and 40 points in 48 games last season. This season he had eight goals and 26 points in 27 AHL games.
Kadri is the first to admit there were times the past few seasons when he grew frustrated at the organization's decision to bring him along slowly, but now that he has taken the proverbial next step, his perspective is adjusted.
"I'll be the first one to tell you every single time I got sent down I wasn't happy about it," Kadri said. "And I don't think you should be happy about it. I don't think they expect you to put on a fake smile and pretend it's all butterflies and rainbows. Obviously you have been put there for a reason, and you can't go down and pout. You have to pick yourself up, and that's exactly what I did. Believe me, sometimes when I wasn't playing well, I had to try to figure out a few things and it wasn't easy, especially with a million other eyes watching you. It's not just your opinion you have to deal with; everybody in the city has an opinion."
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One of the hardest things Kadri faced was having friends and family whispering that he had to leave the Toronto organization before he'd get a legitimate chance to stick in the NHL. He did not want it to come to that.
"There were lots of people saying that, telling me I wasn't going to get my chance until I get out of here," Kadri said. "I just tried to settle them down a little bit. At the end of the day I believed in myself and I believed I could be a player here. I just told people to wait until they actually gave me an opportunity and I'm going to run with it. There's always that 'what if?' in the back of your mind and it's hard to prevent negative thoughts from creeping in when things aren't going the way you want them to, but at the end of the day I believed in my capabilities."
The Maple Leafs never have hidden the fact they expected Kadri to mature off the ice as well as on it before he'd be handed full-time work. He is an excitable and confident individual who freely speaks his mind. A little too freely, perhaps?
"I think that is a flashpoint for every young player," said Dave Poulin, Toronto's vice president of hockey operations. "I don't think that is exclusive to Nazem at all. It wasn't a point of concern, but a point of focus for any player taken seventh overall from a high-profile junior team with the expectations in a city like this. It's exclusive to the development model that we want to build where we want to teach the right way."
Poulin admitted the Maple Leafs had to be careful not to crush Kadri's spirit.
"His confidence stands out and his swagger is a big part of his makeup," Poulin said. "You don't ever want to take that away from him, but you want to channel it in the right direction -- in the best interest of the hockey club. He has been wonderful. He can't lose that swagger that has made him the player he is. You are in a city that magnifies everything and a city that is hungry for a star."
A lot of eyes were raised this season when Marlies coach Dallas Eakins blasted Kadri for being out of shape at training camp despite the fact the center had spent the summer training with fitness guru and former NHL player Gary Roberts. Then there is the fact Kadri was made a healthy scratch for a game in the AHL. Poulin said Kadri was not going to be treated differently from other players simply because he was drafted in the first round.
"That's the cultural model that we want, where [playing time] is on an earned basis and sometimes you have to take something away from someone to make them realize how much they should appreciate it," Poulin said. "He accepted it, I'll say that. Perhaps not at that exact instant, but in the overall process, he got it. People say to me they know he should have been here earlier, but I say, 'No, he's here at the exact right time.'"
Kadri said he believes his conditioning at the start of the season was fine and things were blown out of proportion.
"Just look at my game now," he said. "I don't think your body type can change too drastically during the year. I put in hard work and I think that got overlooked with all the negative energy that was coming out of training camp. People didn't really understand how badly I wanted it and how badly I wanted to put myself in the best position possible to make the NHL. Gary and I worked hard and what [upset me] the most was I didn't want to hurt Gary's reputation."
In order to make the Maple Leafs and earn ice time, Kadri had to win over coach Randy Carlyle, who has very high expectations for all his players. Carlyle said Kadri remains a work in progress, but added the deck may have been stacked against the player in the past.
"I don't think he was ever a poor defensive player," Carlyle said. "Personally I never saw that. What I saw was a player that was playing the wing and it surprised me that he wasn't playing center. When we got him he has always been a guy that is in position down low. Is he strong enough? Yeah, I think he is. Is he smart enough? I think he's really smart. There's probably been more of an emphasis on the negatives in terms of his defense, but he was playing the wing and he was turning the puck over in some critical areas at critical times. Those are the things we have tried to control. Our acceptance level of that is not real high."
Carlyle admitted he has been a little surprised by Kadri's scoring exploits thus far.
"I guess you'd have to say we'd all be somewhat surprised," Carlyle said. "But again, you're in a condensed season; you're not in an 82-game season which we'd normally be viewing. Right now he has had some real strong offensive-output games and we're going to ride the wave. The emergence of Kadri coincides with some of the players he has been playing with and the support that he's getting from his teammates. We feel he is an offensive player who has earned some freedom in some situations and in other situations he has to bear down. Faceoffs continue to be a thorn in the coaches' side and they will be in his side."
Kadri is well-liked by his teammates, who often give him some good-natured ribbing about his overt enthusiasm.
"It's not so much keeping him in line because he's a good kid,” defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "It's just that I'm an older guy and I went through it too. The League has shifted toward being a younger League. In my rookie year [2003-04 with the Colorado Avalanche], I think we had seven, eight or nine guys who were 30 years old or older. You just want to make sure the young guys are always focusing on the right things and that their heads don't get too big. There's a time to goof around and there are times when you are at practice and you have to get your game face on. I was the same as a lot of our kids when I was young; I'd have real high highs and real low lows. One of the biggest things about learning to be a professional is minimizing those highs and lows. To his credit, I think he has done a great job."
After a couple of frustrating seasons, Kadri is the first to admit he can be found checking the NHL's scoring race some mornings.
"I do," he said. "It's a bit surreal when I see my name up there with the likes of Patrick Kane, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews. I look down the list and think to myself, 'How did I do it?' I'm trying not to focus on that too much and just play the game I know how to play. I have to be reliable and allow the coach to trust me and put me out there. Now you're starting to see him playing me against some of the top players, and I like that challenge. I like how Randy has enough faith in me to put me out there and I don't want to disappoint someone who is trying to help me and get me more ice time. He puts his neck on the line for me, so I want to the best I can and so far it has been working out."
Kadri also knows he is a role model for young hockey players of different ethnic backgrounds -- he was the first Muslim player to make it to the NHL.
"I think it's a pretty big deal," Kadri said. "It opens up that path for every other multicultural hockey player. Before it was always a Canadian-American thing, and growing up there wasn't too much diversity in hockey even though I saw it a little bit. Now you go to any minor hockey rink and you're seeing five or six different cultures on each team, and that's what you want. You want to build the game, and I think that is going to help it get bigger."