Kadri’s ca­reer hit ‘cross­road’ in 2015

Vet­eran ad­mits team sus­pen­sion helped his out­look

Windsor Star - - 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 newly hired 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, 26, said. “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 US$27 mil­lion that keeps him in the Leafs fold un­til 2021-22.

Last sea­son, Kadri reached the 30-goal mark for the first time, play­ing a dif­fer­ent role in the shadow of young­sters Aus­ton Matthews, Wil­liam Ny­lan­der and Mitch Marner.

With train­ing camp held in the shadow of big casi­nos, Mike Bab­cock can gam­ble a bit with the one for­ward line sure to be his most con­tentious call.

Namely, de­ploy­ment of ex­pen­sive new toy Patrick Mar­leau and the fall­out for other wingers.

Bab­cock, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, has not chal­lenged the math of 10 NHL-class for­wards chas­ing nine jobs at camp, but as of this week­end, he must start mov­ing to ad­dress it.

When the scrim­mage teams were un­veiled Friday at the Gale Cen­tre, two lines re­mained in­tact from last year — Aus­ton Matthews be­tween Zach Hy­man and Wil­liam Ny­lan­der and Tyler Bozak cen­tring James van Riems­dyk and Mitch Marner.

That put Mar­leau, a high­scor­ing left-winger who could eas­ily fit be­side top-gun Matthews, with Leo Ko­marov, who switched to the right side. Nazem Kadri, held out of scrim­mage play be­cause of a mi­nor in­jury, would’ve been in the mid­dle. Fred­erik Gau­thier was fill­ing in Friday.

For an af­ter­noon at least, that made Con­nor Brown the un­lucky 10th man. He be­gan last sea­son with the fourth line, but worked his way up.

“Matthews’ line was re­ally good for us in the play­offs, Bozak’s group had a good year, Naz had a good jump in his game,” Bab­cock said. “I told Patty when he got here that (Leo) has been with (Kadri and Brown) ba­si­cally the whole time and if that can work for us, it would be re­ally good.

“We’ll talk about those things and see what’s best for the team. These guys will show us who they play best with. I’m just go­ing to watch. It’s a good problem to have.”

Brown ended up with Fin­nish free-agent cen­tre Miro Aal­to­nen for Friday’s ses­sion. Mar­leau, with his 38th birth­day co­in­cid­ing with camp start­ing, sur­prised all his new team­mates with his speed.

“Age surely has not af­fected him,” Bab­cock said. “The thing that leads you in this league is your legs. You can’t make the plays fast enough be­cause you don’t get there quick enough. (He’s) not in that sit­u­a­tion.”

Mar­leau said he wouldn’t pull dress­ing room rank and ask the coach­ing staff for a favourable line as­sign­ment

“(Shift­ing around) has hap­pened through­out my ca­reer, so I’m pretty com­fort­able do­ing it,” said Mar­leau. “Every coach and every team wants to get their lines set and have suc­cess that way. If things are mov­ing around, that means there are things not go­ing right some­where in the lineup or an in­jury. But there are things that hap­pen dur­ing the sea­son and things get shuf­fled around.

“(I like) guys who are hockey smart, guys who can skate and move the puck, a lot of give-and­gos and be able to sup­port each other on the ice. Be­fore I signed here, I looked at their team and all the great play­ers, so you know you’re go­ing to be play­ing with good play­ers, no mat­ter whom.”

Bab­cock didn’t want to over­whelm Mar­leau in the first few days af­ter al­most 20 years with the same or­ga­ni­za­tion in San Jose.

“I’m def­i­nitely pay­ing a lot more at­ten­tion to things that are be­ing put up on the board,” Mar­leau said of sop­ping up the Leafs’ sys­tem. “I give it two or three looks, ask a lot of ques­tions just to see what they ex­pect from me in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions.”

“Ba­si­cally, it’s get­ting him in here, get­ting him go­ing,” added Bab­cock. “We have all of Septem­ber to get that fig­ured out and be ready for Oct. 4 in Win­nipeg.

“We have a plan we want to im­ple­ment over the few days here. Eighty per cent is the same we did last year. Some things are new (or) the nu­ances of things you were do­ing. You have a new group and you never know un­til you get your own play­ers to­gether.”

Marner had a goal and as­sist in the scrim­mage game and didn’t miss a beat the past week when he, Bozak and van Riems­dyk re­united for sum­mer skates.

“We’re all ex­cited to be back and scrim­mag­ing with those two has been fun again,” Marner said. “We want to get our legs back. We’re ob­vi­ously not play­ing against other teams yet, but ev­ery­one is mak­ing a point that they want to be here. It’s com­pet­i­tive no mat­ter who you are out against.

“It’s an im­por­tant time for us to get our chem­istry back as well. Hope­fully we’re to­gether for a long time this year.”

NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Maple Leafs for­ward Patrick Mar­leau, left, who skated with Leo Ko­marov and Fred­erik Gau­thier Friday, breaks away from de­fence­man Calle Rosen dur­ing train­ing camp in Ni­a­gara Falls.

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