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When an NHL insider becomes an inside man (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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The long and protracted soap opera of Nazem Kadri's restricted free agent status came to an end earlier this week when the young center acquiesced to the demands of Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis and signed for short money and shorter term.

Getting Kadri at two years and $2.9 million per was a coup for Nonis that few probably had any right to expect, so given as he was to doing everything exactly wrong in the deals and decisions completed earlier this summer. There was a lot of talk that the reason Kadri was forced to take this deal after he was seeking — depending upon who you believed — anywhere between $4 million and the U.S. GDP for something in the range of five to several million years largely because he had no leverage.

To some extent, this was true. The league is now being ruthlessly set up so that kids, no matter how good or bad they are, can either get paid what teams want to pay them (which you'll understand is considerably below market value) for a relatively short period of time, or they can get paid not at all, and sit at home and cry about it until someone comes calling with an attractive enough offer sheet that they can get their money from someone. Such was the story of Ryan O'Reilly, who was averse to re-sign with Colorado for anything less than what he ended up getting from Calgary before the Avalanche matched in that whole Jay Feaster-fueled debacle last winter.

Meanwhile, though, Leafs training camp opened without the team's other unsigned restricted free agent, defenseman Cody Franson, having decided to come in and do what the world expected him to do and what his former brother in arms already did. The kind of conviviality with which Kadri is now being welcomed by the team — Randy Carlyle has already stated that he might give Kadri a run-out as the pivot between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk — awaits the 26-year-old defenseman if only he'd sign for only a modest raise from the $1.2 million he was paid last year.

Kadri buckled, Cody Franson didn't. And as training camp wears on, it's going to be fascinating to watch how or, I suppose, if the hockey world turns its scorn on the last remaining guy in the organization to sign.

Because it sure did for Kadri. Or rather, the hockey world kind of just said, "Ah, Kadri should take the money because he doesn't have the leverage," which was true to some extent. The Leafs would certainly have been only hurting themselves if he'd actually stuck by his guns instead of throwing them down and marching out of the fort with his hands in the air pleading for the firing to stop.

But there was this one person in the hockey world, who just so happens to have the heft to make it seem like the walls were closing in around him like a Death Star garbage compactor.

The world really began to take notice that Kadri had gone unsigned when the calendar flipped from August to September and with training camp a mere week and a half away, the rumors started swirling thanks in large part to TSN insider Darren Dreger, whose near-daily hits on Toronto-area radio stations focused largely and understandably on the situation with that kid who scored 44 points last season despite getting next to no minutes.

Or rather, those conversations focused on how desperately he needed to start seeing things the Leafs' way and take less money and fewer years than he wanted and probably deserved.

You know, for his own good.

As early as Sept. 3, slightly more than a week before Leafs' camp officially opened, while Leafs vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin was telling people that the team's offers for Kadri and Franson were "fair" and "not cap-related," Dreger went on TSN1050 in Toronto and said, "Right now the numbers don't work for the Leafs in bringing back Kadri and Franson." (All of this interview stuff, by the way, was dutifully transcribed by Twitter user @Hope_Smoke).

The former assurances sounded like spin from a team exec, the latter seemed something closer to the reality of the situation. He also said that it would be in the players' best interests to not get "greedy."

Dreger added, "The Leafs would be very comfortable paying Kadri just under $3 million for two years." That seemed low, but wound up being exactly right. Dreger further noted that Kadri would be able to "get a big pay day eventually the Leafs just don't want to do it now," and that too made sense because why on earth would they give him the money if everyone agreed that he had no leverage, and many also felt that he hadn't "earned" the contract yet. As the days went on, it seemed as though Dreger really began to fall into both camps, rather than just that first one.

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But here too it's important to remind everyone, once again, that despite being extraordinarily dialed-in to front offices across the league, he has a special connection to Toronto because of who his cousin is. It is, again, Dave Nonis. This is a fact rarely brought up by Dreger or the people interviewing him, but which certainly helps to color the comments despite Dreger's assurances to the Toronto Star (in a story from January now buried deep within its archives, but with the important bit viewable here) that "he’s very stingy with any info he provides."

While that might be the case, and while there is, again, no doubting that hockey is already an ol' boys network where everyone knows everyone, does favors for them and then expects the same, the apparent water-carrying Dreger did for the Leafs in the last 10 days or so really makes you wonder just how stingy with the details Nonis really was.

Here's Dreger from that same interview on TSN1050:

"I believe James Reimer is a No. 1 goalie but the Leafs' collapse in Game 7 could have been avoiding if Reimer made some big saves … [S]ome rumblings out of Calgary last week that Bernier could be that young guy Canada may take as the third goalie to the Olympics. [T]hat is what some very powerful and knowledgeable hockey people think of Jonathan Bernier. We'll see what happens."

This of course flies in the face of the whole argument that guys should earn their contracts by putting in the years in this league and showing they can do it consistently over time, because Bernier has a whopping 62 games under his belt, and Nonis moved heaven and earth (and took on or retained $3.4 million in salary) to get him locked up for the next two seasons. His $2.9 million cap hit is identical to Kadri's, but without anything resembling the resume; his statistics suggest he could be a league-average goaltender at this moment, which makes the assertions that "very powerful and knowledgeable hockey people think" Bernier could get an Olympic invite seem rather suspect, even if he absolutely wows in Toronto and steals the job right out from under Not-A-Big-Game-Goalie James Reimer's nose. This strikes the reasonable observer as over-justification for the acquisition of what could potentially be a disastrously mediocre and surplus-to-requirements goaltender for a team that already had a very good one.

Here's Dreger again on TSN radio the next morning:

"Kadri's paycheck is coming it just won't be now. … Once the cap goes up Nonis is going to be happy to open up the cheque book and pay him big money."

This, you'll recall, is less than 24 hours after the team's VP of hockey ops said the issue had nothing to do with the salary cap, which of course it did. But the interesting thing about this interview was what he said about Reimer, in once again justifying the Bernier trade in which the already-cap crunched Leafs retained a total of $500,000 in salary for both the players they shipped to LA:

"James Reimer hasn't played enough in the NHL to demand being a starter. I believe in Reimer but I see more upside in Bernier."

That, obviously, is a cyclical and silly argument. Reimer hasn't played enough to demand being the starter (33 of 48 games last year, not a lot but a lot more than the new guy's zero) but Bernier has enough to the point where the team can justify paying him $1.1 million more. Okay, got it.

And then things went from curious to ludicrous with regard to Kadri a day later:

"Kadri would do himself a favour if he stopped talking and took a two year bridge/show me contract … Kadri is still as much of an American Hockey League player as he is a National Hockey League player. Needs to grow a lot more."

Later, he added:

"If it were me and I'd played fewer than 100 gms I'd be saying as little as possible. … a year ago Kadri was being criticized by Dallas Eakins about his weight and now he wants a large deal."

Because a year ago, he hadn't put up almost a point a game.

Frankly, the tone there seems unnecessarily demeaning to a player whose "talking" was mainly to refute reports — with it being anyone's guess as to their veracity — that he wanted a contract similar to John Tavares's current deal. And now all of a sudden instead of reporting that the Leafs are offering Kadri two years, Dreger is now outright saying he would "do himself a favor" if he just shut up and took it. The assertion that Kadri is as much an AHLer as NHLer is obviously absurd.

(Dreger also took time during this interview to start softening the beaches for the team to let Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel walk when they become UFAs this summer, saying that if Phaneuf wants more than $6.5 million, he won't get it from the Leafs. Later that day, Nonis also said of Kessel, "if the player wants to play in the city" then he'll do what he can to expedite negotiations. Yikes.)

Of course the problem with this is that if the holdout lasted much longer, the Leafs would be putting themselves in tough to replace a No. 2 center who produced that much as a No. 2, despite Dreger's earlier insistence that Joe Colborne (he of 16 career games and extremely limited production) could fill that role ably enough, and later that Dave Bolland could do the same despite his not being able to score playing between Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp last year. He also, on Sept. 9, said that the team signing Mason Raymond to a tryout "puts pressure on Kadri."

The next day, though, Dreger had this to say about the Leafs' center situation:

"Raymond's addition was not a pressure point on Kadri."

What changed in that one day? Seemingly a lot. Less than 12 hours after Dreger reversed his position seemingly for no reason, Kadri's new deal for that two years at $2.9 million AAV was announced.

So the dust settled and that was that, save or one last parting shot on the radio the next morning from Dreger. He said, and because it was only radio we have no way of knowing whether he did so with a straight face, "The Leafs have played this offseason very well. They are ready to take another step forward." If that's not a team-issued talking point, none of this was.

But the good news is that all the talk out of Leafs fans the last few weeks about Dreger being an hatchet man and errand boy for the Leafs, and just parroting whatever Cousin Dave tells him on the phone every night before they put on their stocking caps and enjoy the contented sleep of the innocent has all been dis-proved.

After all, NHL teams' relationships with the media covering them is often a transactional, quid pro quo arrangement. If Dreger said all that weirdly aggressive stuff about Kadri, he'd expect to be compensated for it.

So answer me this, conspiracy theorists: Why did Nick Kypreos get the scoop?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. Here is his Twitter and here is his e-mail.

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