From the day the Maple Leafs drafted him into the organization - June 26, 2009, to be precise - Nazem Kadri has had high expectations surrounding him. Some of those expectations are external, and are a natural extension of what happens when an NHL team selects you with the seventh-overall pick. But the ones that drive him most are the expectations he sets for himself.
They've been there during his junior career with the Ontario League's Kitchener Rangers and London Knights. They've been there at the start of his professional career with the American League's Toronto Marlies. And they've been there throughout his development as an NHLer, in tough times, and now, at a moment when he's blossoming as a two-way force with which to reckon and a leader on a young Leafs squad. So nothing has really changed with the 26-year-old centre, despite the fact he's amassed 18 goals in 41 games, already surpassing his goal total of 17 in 76 games last season. The arrival of head coach Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello in the summer of 2015 have spurred on Kadri to greater heights, but he's envisioned himself moving there from his earliest days as an elite young player.
"The first time I spoke to him, he expected me to be an elite player, and wanted high expectations for me, and to be honest, I had the same expectations for myself," Kadri said Monday regarding his first meeting with Babcock. "I just needed a little bit of guidance, and from Day 1, Babs and Lou and everybody up top that came in fresh has believed in me. And really, maybe that's all a player needs - just some confidence and some support."
Kadri certainly has both right now - confidence in himself, confidence in his teammates, and his teammates' confidence in him, as well as the support of Leafs management. And it is paying off with a well-rounded game that puts him in crucial situations at both ends of the ice. He's often tasked with shadowing the opposition's most dynamic talents, but he's also tied with fellow veteran James van Riemsdyk as Toronto's second-best power-play point-producer (with 12 points), and his nine goals with the man advantage is nearly double the second-best Leaf (William Nylander, with five) in that department.
Babcock believes that having Nylander on the ice at the same time has helped Kadri immensely on the power play, but he also said Kadri made significant changes to his game and approach last year - and that there's more change to come as he continues to grow.
"I still think Naz is early in his journey," Babcock said Monday. "As a player, he did a lot of work this summer, and he's got to do a ton again next summer. He's got to keep getting more fit, and the more work you do, the more you prepare professionally yourself, the more benefits you have. All you've got to do is look at football and Tom Brady and see that."
Kadri's teammates also see the improvements he's made.
"He's working a lot harder," centre Tyler Bozak said of Kadri, who almost certainly will set a new personal-best in the goal department when he tops the 20-goal plateau he reached in the 2013-14 campaign. "He's just always trying to get better. He's going to the dirty areas a lot on the ice, he's not afraid to get into it with anyone, he's a hard guy to play against, and he's playing very hard at both ends of the ice."
The organizational depth Leafs brass has developed in the past couple years definitely takes some of the external pressure off Kadri to be a high-impact player, but don't kid yourself - he's still got a burning desire to be a difference-maker. And, having experienced a certain degree of frustration, both personally and as part of the larger unit, as Toronto rejigged its roster to become more competitive, Kadri now plays to ensure the good days are only just beginning for himself and Buds fans.
If Leafs supporters think it's fun to be in their position, they should know Kadri and his teammates feel exactly the same way.
"It's fun to be a Leafs player again, too," Kadri said. "The dog days of Leafs Nation was definitely tough. The last few years - just the losses, and not knowing how to handle certain situations…there was a lot of distractions here in LeafsLand. I think this year we've taken a different approach - we've just believed in ourselves, we have fun as a group. We take things seriously, but we like to have fun as well, and I think that chemistry has really taken us over the top."
And as Kadri's individual metrics take off like a rocket, he wants the team and fans to be aware he doesn't take their belief in him for granted.
"They were definitely patient with me, which I appreciated," Kadri said. "I definitely didn't want to disappoint."