High expectations nothing new for Kadri

by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com

Nazem Kadri knows all about the close relationship between the city of Toronto and the sport of hockey.

Born and raised in nearby London, Ont., Kadri grew up with a first-hand view of the way fans and media eat up the sport, and specifically the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

So when Kadri fast-forwards to his present status as the most prized prospect in a Leafs organization looking to turn around its recent fortunes, he tries his best to take all the expectations and attention in stride.

“You try not to think about it that much, but it’s always in the back of your head,” Kadri said. “To be honest, I know people have high expectations for me, but I have high expectations for myself. I want to get better, I want to learn, and I want to become an impact player in the NHL. That’s what I’m working for.”

The 20-year-old rookie seems well on his way. Through Wednesday’s action, Kadri has put up 13 goals and 20 assists in 34 contests with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season.

His 0.97 points-per-game average ranks second among all AHL rookies. And he stands as the Marlies’ second-leading scorer despite the fact that a lengthy NHL stint has limited him to just over half of the club’s games.

“His strength is the way he sees the game on offense – reading plays, recognizing opportunity, and with that goes his skill set, his hands, his body movement, the way he’s able to influence a defender, and he’s a real agile guy who’s very quick to move laterally,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, who previously spent two seasons as an assistant coach with Maple Leafs and one as the organization’s director of player development.

“That catches defenders off-guard, and it’s hard to defend when a guy can get to the good ice laterally. It usually results either in a scoring chance or a power play if they have to haul him down.”

Since first taking hold of a stick at age four and playing competitive hockey at age six, Kadri has viewed himself as a playmaking forward who can also put the puck in the net, and he cites seven-time 30-goal scorer Paul Kariya among the many forwards he enjoyed watching while growing up.

“I love to stickhandle, [to] control the puck, and I know how to make crisp plays off my stick,” Kadri said. “I like seeing the ice and making cross-ice plays, nice passes, and obviously also score goals, because who doesn’t like to score?”

Kadri did plenty of scoring during a four-year junior career in the Ontario Hockey League that saw him spend two seasons in Kitchener before blossoming as a member of his hometown London Knights from 2008-10.

Playing on a Knights team which included the likes of future first-overall pick John Tavares and top-scoring defensemen John Carlson and Michael Del Zotto, Kadri led the squad in scoring with 78 points (25-53-78) in 56 games during the 2008-09 campaign.

That prompted the Maple Leafs to select him with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

“It was great just being in my seat, kind of having a feeling that I would go in that range,” Kadri said. “Each pick could have been a surprise, you never know. So I didn’t really know what to expect, but once my name was called I was so relieved.”

Speaking of surprises, it might surprise some people to learn that while Kadri spent his childhood right in the Maple Leafs’ backyard, he actually grew up rooting for one of Toronto’s most hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.

However, he was quick to shift the blame for that one.

“My dad was always a pretty hard-core Habs fan, so I grew up loving them too,” he said. “Leafs Nation is pretty huge, all my friends were Leafs fans and I was the only Habs fan, so we’d have little friendly bets all the time.

“But as soon as I got drafted, I sort of turned over a new leaf, so to speak.”

Following a career-best 35-goal, 93-point season for London in 2009-10, it was clearly time for Kadri to take his game to the next level.

And while many Leafs fans and Toronto media were calling for an opening-night appearance at the Air Canada Centre, Leafs general manager Brian Burke opted let the 6-foot, 185-pound forward adapt to the pro game and continue his development with the Marlies.

“There’s been a lot written and said about him in Toronto here,” Eakins noted, “and his progression is a natural one, not unlike (many players) who come out of junior or college and it’s their first year pro.”

Kadri made an immediate impression, recording a point in three of the season’s first four games before breaking out with a two-goal, two-assist effort in a 5-2 victory over Oklahoma City on Oct. 23.

After Kadri totaled 14 points (5-9-14) in 14 games for the Marlies through Nov. 11, Burke summoned him to the Maple Leafs in an effort to shake up a club which ranked second-to-last in the NHL in offense at the time. However, the general manager was quick to warn Kadri not to view himself at himself as a savior and add any undue pressure.

“The start was definitely tough for me,” Kadri said. “It’s big hockey. You’re playing with men, guys who are making salaries and some who are supporting families. It’s pretty important to watch how guys handle themselves on and off-the ice – sort of a wake-up call – but I’m always learning and trying to absorb things like a sponge.

“I thought I handled myself pretty well up there. But along the way I learned some things, and I think I came a long way as a result.”

Kadri contributed six assists during his 17-game stay with the big club and was returned to the Marlies on Dec. 29. Far from appearing disappointed, the rookie came back to the AHL set to improve on what he took away from a taste of the NHL.

“He was ready to work, and he came back very passionate,” Eakins said. “I think it really opened up his eyes to a number of things. Yes, there were some things in his game that he needs to clean up, and yes, he still needs to work on his quickness and his strength.

“He hasn’t been a problem for us at all. He wants to learn, and he’s looking for information whether it’s on the ice or in the weight room. This kid’s committed to being a player, and it takes time.”

While Kadri has maintained his point-per-game pace since returning and shows five multiple-point outings in that span, Eakins has also seen growth in his defensive positioning, an area the pair frequently review in video sessions.

The coach also noted that for a young player like Kadri, an underrated element of his development has been the ability to recognize when to attack on offense and when to make a safe play and battle for the puck down low.

“A kid like Nazem, he has the skill and the ability to create a highlight-reel goal, so when that situation arises, then absolutely – if it’s there, it’s there,” Eakins said. “But we don’t want him forcing that each and every time he goes out on the ice.”

As the season hits its three-quarter pole, the Marlies are in the thick of an intense playoff race in the AHL’s North Division, and their stretch drive includes a date with the first-place Manitoba Moose on Sunday afternoon in a game which will be televised live nationally on CBC in Canada and NHL Network in the United States.

Kadri knows that his future is in a Maple Leafs uniform and certainly hopes to get there full-time as soon as possible, but right now he’s excited to be part of a postseason push and hone his craft with the Marlies.

“Obviously, playing in the National Hockey League has been something I’ve wanted for so long now,” Kadri said. “I have to concentrate on being with the Marlies right now, but in the long run, everyone I’m working for right now is directed toward getting to the NHL.

“The coaching staff here with the Marlies has done a great job,” he went on. “If I make a mistake, (Eakins) will obviously point out my errors and talk to me about them, but he’ll also throw me right back out there so I can do something about it and help impact a game. They’ve given me unbelievable confidence, and now I think that’s truly starting to show.”

And as far as all the spotlights which are focused on Kadri in what can easily be described as the hockey capital of the world, his coach thinks the 20-year-old is managing everything just fine.

“I think he’s handled it great, and it’s a tough thing,” Eakins said. “With all these guys, their generation is the internet, it is the media, and you get information very quickly. He understands the market that we’re in.

“He’s only 20 years old, and especially in this city, I think people who are not involved directly with our team forget that. We’ve been able to take a breath and make sure his development progresses the correct way, and he will become a very good player at the next level.”