It’s rare that you get to see a player ‘arrive’ right before your eyes, but that’s exactly what happened last night with Nazem Kadri. His hat-trick in highlight-reel fashion propelled the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 5-4 win over the New York Islanders. If there were any lingering doubts about Kadri’s ability to be a top-six forward at the NHL level, they were erased with a big statement on Thursday night.
Kadri’s journey has not been without some bumps in the road and he hasn’t taken the standard path to the NHL. Some prospects are ready to make a transition to pro hockey right away, while others simply never pan out at all or fall well below expectations. Kadri is in a select group, especially in the Toronto organization, who weren’t rushed into things and by the same token, weren’t given up on either.
Kadri now leads the Leafs in scoring with 21 points in 22 games, and is five clear of the next closest Toronto player, all while only averaging just over 15 minutes of ice a game. This year has been far different than anything we have seen from Kadri in the past. Flashes of brilliance have been replaced by consistency, and carelessness with the puck has disappeared in favour of dominance out on the ice. All this from someone who just over a month ago wasn’t even a lock to crack the Leafs’ roster.
Since he was drafted in 2009, Kadri has only played sparingly for the Leafs in three seasons. Opting to let him remain in junior for a year and then having him play substantial time with the Toronto Marlies over the next two campaigns rubbed some people the wrong way. Kadri’s start in the NHL was also hindered by former Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who was always less than ecstatic about playing young players. If someone like Kadri made a mistake, as inexperienced players often do, his ice-time was reduced or he was returned to the Marlies. That’s not an easy thing to deal with as a youngster because you rarely get an opportunity to rectify your wrongdoing.
With Randy Carlyle things have changed. The Leaf bench boss has never been afraid to play young guys, and play them a lot. Perhaps what’s more important is that he doesn’t banish them for an error. Although Carlyle has an old school mentality, he seems to have a strong ability to relate to his players. They always know where they stand, good or bad. That seems to be a difference in Kadri’s game. He is no longer playing tentatively and with a fear of being benched. He knows when to attack and when to play it safe.
With all the improvements Kadri has shown, it would be remiss not to give some of the credit to Dallas Eakins. Down with the Marlies, Eakins worked tirelessly with Kadri and knew which buttons to push to get the most out of him. Eakins wasn’t afraid to scratch him earlier this year when he felt his play was below par. Kadri responded by posting 26 points in 27 games with the Marlies this season. His greater attention to detail now at the NHL level is in large part thanks to Eakins.
If you wanted to compare Kadri’s path to another player, the best example might be that of Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza. The Senators were very careful with Spezza as well, and he spent significant time down in junior and the AHL before playing with Ottawa on a regular basis. That has worked out well for both the Senators and Spezza, which proves sometimes rushing a player’s development doesn’t make sense.
Many have felt Kadri should have been in this position last year, but perhaps that is just a reflection of today’s society and how we want everything now. It’s an impatient world and we are not often willing to wait on potential. The added difficulty in this market is that every move you make is scrutinized. Whether it’s showing up to camp supposedly out of shape or not improving quickly enough as a player, Toronto is not a place you can hide. Kadri is still just 22-years-old and has not only survived those rough patches, but he is now thriving.
Instead of wondering why it took so long, fans should just be happy and thankful that Kadri is here now.