For all the publicity he's received and the controversy he's been in over the five years he's been with the Toronto Maple Leafs, center Nazem Kadri has technically played one full, lockout-free NHL season, and even then it was 78 games last season, not 82.
Maybe that's why on the first day of training camp general manager Dave Nonis said for Kadri to be successful this season he "has to be prepared to compete for 82 games. If he is then he's going to have a very good year."
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Nonis' words suggested he doesn't think Kadri has shown a level of consistency commensurate with his ability and the hype he has gotten since he was selected with the seventh pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. It's a fair assessment, one even Kadri would agree with.
He had 44 points in the 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, helping the Maple Leafs reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs with .917 points per game. His numbers tailed off last season to 50 points in 78 games (.641 points per game) despite a hot start of 13 points in his first 14 games. Kadri had four points in the Maple Leafs' final 14 games, when they went 2-12-0 and infamously tumbled out of a playoff position.
"Do I have everything figured out? I don't," Kadri said. "I've still got a lot to learn and I'm still 23 years old and that is really what I want to add to my game -- becoming the whole package and being able to play in all three zones."
For Kadri, who turns 24 next week, that also means being a threat to score on every shift. No coasting. No taking shifts off.
He's technically the Maple Leafs' No. 2 center because he doesn't regularly play with Phil Kessel (Tyler Bozak does), but he's their most dynamic and skilled pivot, so much so that James van Riemsdyk compared him to a center he used to play with:
Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux, a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season with 93 points.
"When I first got here [I thought] he had a little bit of Claude Giroux in his game, kind of how he has the puck on a string," van Riemsdyk said. "His edge work is phenomenal, kind of how he can make these different cuts and moves out there. And the way he sees the ice and thinks the game, he's got a little bit of Giroux in him, I think. He's a tremendous player, highly skilled, and he can get you the puck pretty much wherever you are."
Nonis has seen that enough to know it to be true. What he needs to see now is Kadri play like that all the time without sacrificing his defensive principles.
"That's what the elite players do," Nonis said. "He's gotten better and more consistent, but if he's truly going to be a top guy and he wants to fall into that high-end category, those players don't go for swings where they are not competing, preparing and being prepared."
Kadri should have plenty of motivation. He's up for a new contract after this season and he'll want a big raise on top of the $2.9 million he's making. Kadri can become a restricted free agent with arbitration rights on July 1, 2015.
"I'd love to be in that situation where it's going to be hard to get him signed because of the year he has," Nonis said. "That's what we're all looking for. I think that's what Nazem is looking for. I think he's going to come out of the gates hard, and hopefully he prepares like that for 82."