The key moment for Nazem Kadri came not with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but with the Toronto Marlies, their minor-league affiliate. It came in a meeting with Dallas Eakins, the kind of meeting coaches often have with skilled players about the other side of the game.
Simply telling Kadri what to do wasn't working, so Eakins started asking questions: "If you were your opponent in this situation, what would you want Nazem Kadri to do? What would you not want Nazem Kadri to do?" Kadri discovered that he knew the answers – where to go when you don't have the puck, how to manage the puck when you have it, and why.
"I would say to Naz, 'You should be the best defensive player on our team, because you know every offensive trick there is,' " Eakins said. "Then suddenly it started to click. We just had to teach him a different way."
So when was this epiphany? When Kadri played for the Marlies during the lockout? Is that why the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft looks like he's now in the NHL to stay at 22 years old, leading the Leafs in scoring and playing a more complete game a quarter of the way through the season? Not exactly.
"It was a couple years ago," Eakins said.
This is a story about development. Every player is different, every situation is different and the path to the NHL is not necessarily a straight line even for a top-10 pick. Players have to learn how to fit in. Coaches have to learn how to fit them in. It has been a particularly delicate dance in Toronto for Kadri.
The Leafs love having their AHL affiliate in the same city. It's great for logistics. It's great for marketing. It's great for motivating players. As the Marlies' slogan goes: "Every game is a tryout." Problem is, when a player goes from the Leafs to the Marlies, he goes from Toronto to Toronto. He cannot lick his wounds in obscurity in, say, Binghamton. He suffers his embarrassment in the same fishbowl from whence he came. Every demotion is dissected.
"Boy, it's wonderful when you get called up," Eakins said. "But when you get sent down, it's not like you're out of there."
Now consider Kadri. He was born in London, Ontario. He starred for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He became the top prospect for a team lacking top-end talent that hadn't made the playoffs since 2004 and hadn't won the Stanley Cup since 1967 in the Center of the Hockey Universe – a perfect storm of pressure. When he had three goals and five points in six preseason games in 2009, just before he turned 19 and returned to junior, it only raised expectations.
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But Kadri struggled in the preseason in 2010 and went to the Marlies, and he spent two seasons shuttling up and down. Ron Wilson, the Leafs' coach most of that time, didn't mince words about Kadri's deficiencies in public or in private. Randy Carlyle, who replaced Wilson late last season, said he knew all about the Kadri drama – while he was coaching the Ducks out in Anaheim. If you paid attention to hockey, you couldn't help but hear about it.
Kadri couldn't help but think about the Leafs whenever he was with the Marlies – at home, out to eat, about town. He'd watch Leafs games or see Leafs jerseys on the street, and he'd feel both motivation and disappointment. He felt Wilson didn't put him in position to succeed. Wilson divided his forwards into top-six and bottom-six roles. He stuck Kadri in a bottom-six role on the wing when Kadri was supposed to develop into a top-six centerman.
"Some of the staff my first two years, I guess we butted heads a little bit," said Kadri, not naming names. "They didn't have the same confidence that Randy has in me. ... If you ask me if I thought I could do this my first year, the answer would probably be yes because I believe in myself."
But why does Carlyle have more confidence in Kadri than Wilson did? And was Kadri really ready to play in the top-six his first year or even his second? It might be easier to give Kadri some honey now because he was fed vinegar before. Kadri had to be humbled, and he had to break bad habits and develop good habits to be put in this position. He was the classic case of a talented prospect that didn't need to worry about the details while in junior, but had to mature as an athlete, as a person, and as a player.
"He never had to be fit," Eakins said. "He never had to be strong. He had so much skill it didn't matter. He did what he wanted on the ice. He was so relied on offensively that I think sometimes they looked the other way on his defensive liabilities."
Kadri improved his eating and training, going from about 167 pounds to about 185. Eakins taught him to play the complete game by coming back to skill. To show your skill, you have to possess the puck, right? So play defense to get the puck back and limit turnovers to keep it on your stick. But Eakins also taught Kadri when not to use his skill – to chip in the puck at the right time, to eat pucks down low at the right time, to be aware of the score and the clock and not get cute at the wrong time.
The lockout was a benefit. Kadri had more time to develop in the AHL, and he could do it without the pressure and distraction of the NHL. No one could ask why he was in the minors. He couldn't long for what he was missing. The Leafs weren't playing.
Carlyle said his assessment was that Kadri was more effective at center than the wing because "he wasn't as vulnerable to some of the things I thought wouldn't allow him to play." He said the Leafs "couldn't put him in a checking role and expect him to flourish in that capacity." Kadri is still the third-line center, but under Carlyle, that's usually a "top-nine role" with skilled players, not a "bottom-six" role with grinders. Kadri is also getting power-play time.
"I get the feeling that he likes me and he likes me as a player," Kadri said. "That helps me out a lot when I know my coach actually can believe in me and have faith in me. That makes me want to work that much harder for him.
"Did I feel that way before? Absolutely not. Not even close. I felt left out. I felt like ... Even though I never, ever once stopped believing in myself, I didn't think other people believed in me. It's a whole different thing putting me with guys that actually can play on the same page as I can offensively. He gives me an opportunity to make myself known and to succeed, whereas before it didn't really seem that way."
Kadri said he has "matured" as a player and that he has "fixed everything they've wanted me to."
He is still maturing, still fixing, of course. Though he leads the Leafs in scoring – pretty good for a third-liner who lost a red-hot wingman in Matt Frattin to injury – Phil Kessel started slowly and Joffrey Lupul got hurt. Kadri has 12 points in 15 games. He needs to keep producing while working on his faceoffs and the other details he has been working on for the last three years. He cannot afford to slip back into bad habits.
But he reached this point by learning to look at the game differently in the minors, and now he looks at the minors differently, too.
"Dallas Eakins and me really beared down, and he stuck with me the whole way, and that's what you get – results," Kadri said. "It may have taken a couple years – a long couple years – but it's worth it in the end."
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