Kadri’s career hit ‘crossroad’ in 2015
Veteran admits team suspension helped his outlook
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.”
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.