Lessons learned, Kadri em­brac­ing his vet­eran role with Maple Leafs

Waterloo Region Record - - SPORTS - Kyle Cicerella

TORONTO — In March 2015, Nazem Kadri had his most hu­mil­i­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a Toronto Maple Leaf.

Af­ter show­ing up late to a team meet­ing on a Sun­day morn­ing, in­terim coach Peter Ho­rachek sus­pended Kadri for three games. Kadri wasn’t mak­ing a good im­pres­sion on new­ly­hired pres­i­dent Bren­dan Shana­han, who was in the process of putting to­gether the team he wanted for the fu­ture and was con­cerned the for­ward didn’t seem in­ter­ested in be­ing a part of the re­build.

Two-and-a-half years later, Kadri calls the episode a “cross­road.”

“That point in time I had to make a de­ci­sion and look­ing back I felt like I made the right one,” Kadri said this week as the Maple Leafs opened train­ing camp.

It was as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager Mark Hunter who vouched for Kadri, based on their time to­gether with the On­tario Hockey League’s Lon­don Knights.

“I feel Mark put his neck on the line for me and said: ‘This kid can be a player,’” Kadri, now 26, re­called. “He had my back and I’ll al­ways have his. I want to make him look good.”

Kadri is in a bet­ter place now, say­ing the cur­rent vibe in Toronto is “night and day” com­pared to his early years in the league.

“It’s amaz­ing that I did still end up here as far as all the gen­eral man­ager changes, player changes, coach­ing changes,” Kadri said re­cently. “I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go with this or­ga­ni­za­tion and it feels good to fi­nally have an im­pact and have a great team around us.”

Dur­ing his roller-coaster Leafs ca­reer, Kadri has seen three gen­eral man­agers, four coaches and a com­plete over­haul of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“When this all started I knew I could do it, just had to change a few things to become im­por­tant to the fran­chise, along with team­mates’ help, guid­ance from man­age­ment and coach­ing staff,” said Kadri. “I just didn’t want to dis­ap­point, so I needed to fig­ure it out.”

Kadri stayed fo­cused on hockey and even­tu­ally earned the trust of the new regime, land­ing a six-year con­tract ex­ten­sion worth $27 mil­lion US that keeps him in the Leafs fold un­til 2021-22.

Se­lected sev­enth over­all by Toronto in the 2009 draft, Kadri made his NHL de­but in 2010 against San Jose, tak­ing his first faceoff on a line with Vik­tor Stal­berg and Lee Stemp­niak. Only Kadri and Tyler Bozak re­main from that ros­ter.

But that was just a taste of the NHL. He’d spend his first two pro sea­sons shuf­fling be­tween the Leafs and the Amer­i­can Hockey League’s Mar­lies, be­fore fi­nally be­com­ing an ev­ery­day NHLer in 2013 un­der new coach Randy Car­lyle.

De­spite the per­sonal stum­bling blocks, front-of­fice changes and pub­lic crit­i­cism — he was once called out by for­mer Mar­lies coach Dal­las Eakins for be­ing over­weight and hav­ing a poor diet — Kadri says he’s OK with what he’s gone through.

“What I ap­pre­ci­ate is noth­ing was ever given to me as a high pick,” he said. “I was never given a spot on the ros­ter, given cer­tain things like (power-play) time. I had to go out and earn it and prove my­self and at this point I think we are on the right track.”

Last sea­son, Kadri reached the 30-goal mark for the first time, play­ing a dif­fer­ent role in the shadow of star young­sters Aus­ton Matthews, Wil­liam Ny­lan­der and Mitch Marner, and helped Toronto reach the play­offs for the first time in an 82-game sea­son since 2004.

For the first time in his ca­reer, the Leafs are at train­ing camp with re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions to win games. That alone has made ev­ery­thing worth it for Kadri.

“We’re a con­fi­dent group, pos­i­tive group, a lit­tle swag­ger to us now and we un­der­stand we can hang with the best teams,” said Kadri. “We’re no longer in a feelout process where we don’t know which guys are around or what sys­tems we play.

“Ev­ery­thing is crys­tal clear.”

NATHAN DENETTE, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Whether it’s been per­sonal stum­bling blocks, front-of­fice changes or crit­i­cism from the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the me­dia, Nazem Kadri has faced his share of ad­ver­sity since his 2009 draft year. Now, com­ing off a 30-goal sea­son, with young stars along­side, he’s em­brac­ing his new role.

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