TORONTO â€” Nazem Kadri thought his first career playoff goal had sealed a berth in the second round for the Maple Leafs. Instead it was the prologue for years of upheaval in Toronto.
Boston stormed back with four unanswered goals after Kadri gave Toronto a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 of a 2013 first-round series. The Leafs have changed in almost every way imaginable in the four years since, and so has Kadri.
The 26-year-old shining on the post-season stage this spring bears only slight resemblance to the flawed but skilled player on that ill-fated team of the past.
“I played against Toronto lots obviously and, nothing against Naz, you didn’t concern yourself too much with Naz,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said before the team’s first round series with Washington began.
All James van Riemsdyk knew about Kadri before he got to Toronto was what he saw in the media: a confident kid who “always kind of said funny stuff â€” at least I thought.”
It was that brash, self-assured personality that quickly endeared him to a market itching for stars. He had game too â€” highly skilled, pugnacious, and unafraid to toss his smallish frame around against bigger opponents. But to the Leafs, he was missing a few things that came to light under the Toronto microscope.
There was his conditioning, which bubbled to the surface in the fall of 2012 when then Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins blasted a 21-year-old Kadri for showing up to training camp out of shape.
Kadri got to the NHL a few months later and thrived offensively (18 goals, 44 points in 48 games), but over time he frustrated a Randy Carlyle-led coaching staff with his recklessness with the puck and half-hearted commitment to defence.
Though he was always an effective player according to underlying numbers, Kadri hadn’t cemented his future with the Leafs. Dave Nonis, formerly the team’s general manager, said in January 2014 that he was open to trading Kadri if the right deal came along.
Doubts over his future with the club spiked just over a year later when team president Brendan Shanahan suspended Kadri for repeated off-ice behavioural woes. Shanahan said Kadri, who showed up late to a team meeting, needed to grow up and gave him one last chance with a one-year deal that summer.
Kadri evidently took the message to heart and found “out what his game was and (where) it was best suited” as Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello remembers it. Babcock focused Kadri’s swaggering personality away from points and toward shutting down the stars of the league as a matchup centre.
The role seemed to suit Kadri, who liked making himself the thorn in the side of those like Sidney Crosby and John Tavares. He ended up leading a lacklustre Leafs squad in scoring and earned a fan in Lamoriello for his competitive play during a season which saw the club plummet to 30th place.
“He’s fearless and I say that with respect, because that’s in his DNA,” Lamoriello said in a recent interview. “And he’s dwelled on his assets this year. He’s cut down on things that maybe he shouldn’t be doing. And whenever he gets a little to the left, a little to the right, the coaching staff pulls him right in line.”
Just over year after Shanahan’s public shaming, Kadri was signed for a six-year, US$27 million deal. An organization once iffy on his future was now all in.
Kadri was arguably the Leafs’ best all-around player in the first year of his new deal, boasting a career-high 32 goals and 61 points this past regular season with above-average puck possession numbers â€” all this in spite of his challenging nightly role against opposing top lines.
“He’s come a long ways,” said long-time teammate Jake Gardiner. “When he first got here it was a lot of offence â€” and I think he would agree with this too â€” (he) probably wasn’t the best defensive player. And I think at times he would show that physical side, but now he’s consistent every single night. He’s scoring, he’s passing, he’s frustrating the other team’s top lines and then off the ice too he’s come a long way.”
Frequent linemate Leo Komarov added Kadri isn’t trying to score all the time any more and had improved plenty as a defensive entity.
“He’s got a lot of skill and he could be a top player in this league,” Komarov said. “He’s not far away, but he’s getting close.”
Kadri describes himself as more mature and better prepared to handle the ups and downs of an NHL career. He believes his years in the Toronto spotlight have made him mentally stronger and perfectly suited to the playoff terrain, where he’s emerged as a bothersome force against the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin-led top line.
“I don’t mind the big stage at all,” Kadri said. “At the end of the day I think playing in a market like Toronto prepares you almost in a sense to play in the playoffs.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press