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Can Nazem Kadri do anything right?

Look, I admit I’m as confused as the next guy when it comes to how the Maple Leaf organization has dealt with prized (?) prospect Nazem Kadri.  From the day he was drafted in the summer of 2009, Leaf fans have had been a virtual obsession with him—and around when the young forward would be ready to start making a consistent contribution to the big club.

I won’t go on and on (at least I’ll try not to), but suffice to say I have mentioned in this space on more than one occasion that I have not liked—at all—the way the Leafs have handled Kadri from the get-go.

Oddly, it almost seemed to surprise people (and even Kadri) when he was sent back to junior after his first camp—though the 18-year old was clearly not ready to play for the Leafs.

Still, when he was called up to play one game that season, everyone’s eyes were on him.  The assumption was that—albeit as an emergency recall only—if he was good enough to get the call to play an NHL game, surely he would be with the Leafs the next season.

But what we were seeing was just the beginning of the yo-yo approach that the Leafs were to employ, including during the 2010-’11 NHL season.  He quite properly (despite a productive game against the Senators late in pre-season) started the season with the Marlies, where he belonged.  But amazingly (and somewhat stupidly) he was called up in the fall of 2010 to trigger some offensive production—at a time when he wasn’t even playing that well with the Marlies, if I remember correctly.  However, the Leafs weren’t scoring at the time and they looked to Kadri to get them going.  Regardless of whether he looked like Mike Bossy (which he didn’t) at the time with the Marlies, the notion that he would be the much-needed offensive catalyst just demonstrated how lacking the Leafs were in offensive ammunition at the time.

And it represented a sign of weakness of thought—and a bit of desperation—on the part of management.

Not surprisingly, after some nice early returns, Kadri cooled off and was soon headed back to the minors.  We kept hearing how he had to stop giving the puck away, that he really wasn’t ready after all for NHL play.  This was after we had been told at training camp that he needed to get bigger, stronger and faster—like just about every prospect out there at the age of 18, 19 and 20. Yet he was called up and shuffled back to the Marlies. (Sadly, this is now the fourth camp in a row where we keep hearing different versions of the same message about Kadri...)

I was so frustrated watching this unfold.  As I had said here many times, I just wanted Kadri to play and stay with the Marlies all season long in 2010-’11.  Learn the pro game, get better, get comfortable—and get confident.  (All that stuff we always say- but it makes sense.)

On the "confidence" question:  the young man has always sounded confident when he speaks.  That’s great.  He almost always has said the right things about wanting to learn to become a pro.  But I’m talking about the confidence that a player has not only when he knows what he’s doing on the ice but also when he is not playing with doubt—or afraid that every mistake will be scrutinized by the coaching staff and management and inevitably lead to a seat on the bench or worse, up in the press box.

Last year at this time, Kadri was seemingly going to make the team, but a late training camp injury killed his chances and Matt Frattin took advantage to assure himself of a roster spot.

Meanwhile, Kadri, earned some call-ups to the Leafs but  spent a good chunk of last season with the Marlies again, not exactly setting the league on fire, but playing well a fair bit of the time.  He showed a slightly more physical side to his game at that level, though he is not exactly a bruiser.

In any event, until a couple of days ago, the last we had really heard from the soon-to-be 22 year-old Kadri is that he had been working out “all” (?) summer with former Maple Leaf winger and current   nutrition, health and fitness guru Gary Roberts.  I assumed, based on everything I had heard, that Kadri was sculpted, a chiseled boy-man that—at least in terms of his physical appearance—would turn heads at Leaf (now Marlies, given the lockout) camp this September.

Instead, what was the first-day camp storyline?

Well,  we heard the well-regarded Marlies coach, Dallas Eakins, speak at length about Kadri.  While measured and calm, he spoke firmly and directly about the fact that Kadri was in the lower tier of Marlies when they were assessed in terms of body fat, I think it was.  (Glad I wasn’t tested…)

The first thing I thought was…hmmm.  Wasn’t Kadri with Gary Roberts all summer?  Was that something I had dreamt?

Then I began to wonder…why is Eakins being so specific and so harsh-sounding (again, while speaking calmly) about, of all people, Kadri?  Do we really need to know that the kid is in the lower three guys on the team or whatever it is in terms of his conditioning?

Why is the organization (and this smacks of a directive from Burke or Carlyle) so hell-bent on making Kadri’s life miserable here?

Like, what is really going on here?

I get tough love and all that.  That you have to "earn" the sweater.  (Though I've been watching a lot of Leaf hockey the last four years and well, for all the "entitlement"  and "blue and white disease" talk, I'm not sure every guy I see out there has always "earned" his jersey, but anyway...)  Usually a coach is hard on you when he sees you have more to give and he wants you to excel, to be the best you can be.  We all understand that.

But sometimes, well sometimes I just don’t know.  Didn’t we all figure that Kadri, unlike Schenn who was drafted by Fletcher, was Burke’s guy, given that Kadri was his first first-round draft choice as General Manager of the Maple Leafs?  Didn't we kind of anticipate  that Burke would move heaven and other to make sure Kadri made it?  Yes he’d have to fight for it, but it seems as though the young man has done a lot of what he has been asked to do by the organization.

Yet every fall—and I mean every single training camp—we keep hearing about all the things Kadri is doing wrong, the things he needs to work on, that he is not in shape, or not in the right kind of shape, and now that he eats the wrong things, despite being on a Gary Roberts diet.

Hey, Kadri is still young- very young.  I know there is always a debate when you see players drafted after him who are maybe having quicker success at the NHL level, like perhaps a Zack Kassian. But in truth, most of those first-rounders from that draft year who have stood out were selected before Kadri.

I don’t know if the Leafs believe in him and are simply making him the poster boy for the supposed “every game is a try-out” thing, or are simply growing increasingly frustrated by the fact that he has not, evidently, made that massive jump that you sometimes see young players take in their career.

My though has long been that a) Kadri needed extensive seasoning, for lack of a better word, in the minors.  Surely he has had that by now, though the lockout means that education will continue this season under Eakins. But I also believe that b) at some point, when he is given a chance in the Leaf line-up, it has to be a real chance.  By that I mean not just two or thee games.  Or being moved (as we saw in 2010-’11 in his first call up) from the first line eventually to the third or fourth line or from the power-play to the bench (and then the minors) if he gives the puck away once or twice or fails to put up big numbers.

And on a related note, is he a center?  A winger?  I still don’t know.

So I say, let him play.  Just let him play.  Once he "makes" the Leaf line-up, keep him there.

Just like I talked here often about the numbing effect Allaire must have had (and I was saying this years before the shit hit the fan in the last few weeks) on someone like Gustavsson, who looked like a Stepford goalie by the time Allaire had "tutored" him, I don’t want the organization to crush Kadri.

With Kadri, we need to understand that he is not Mats Sundin, or Doug Gilmour.  He is a young player with plenty of flaws, but someone that the Leafs should be building up rather than tearing down.  He has vision.  He has hands.  He has moves.  He can make plays.  Let him do what he is good at.  Don’t ignore his flaws, of course.  Stay on him but don’t make him so wary of errors that he loses his instincts and ability to create on the fly.

I’ve said here many times that Kadri, in my view, has been “out there” in trade talks for ages.  I firmly believe he was in a number of packages that would have brought Leafs “name” players over the past few years (Nash, Luongo, Bobby Ryan, etc.) but for a number of reasons, those deals never came to pass.

I don’t know if the Leafs love Kadri, or feel stuck with him.

Whatever, I wouldn’t have minded a little white lie from Eakins’ lips in talking about Kadri on the weekend.  Rather than, “He’s in the bottom three…” in terms of conditioning, just day, “He looks fine.  Ready to go.  We know he can play and we think he’ll show us….”

So count me as puzzled.

Your thoughts?


  1. Michael,

    On the Eakins questioning Kadris body fat. He was, as I understand the media scrum, asked a direct question about Kadri. He answered it honestly, so I have no fault with that. He answers questions asked of him honestly, I like that.

    I think that the Leafs and Kadri himself could have handled this better than they have. I give Kadri somewhat more of a pass than I would have in the past. He is young, and I wish I could have more than one do over as it were. It is still his fourth professional camp. He needs to be learning from his mistakes.

    The part right now that concerns me is the disconnect I see developing. Kadri in recent interviews says he is in the best shape he has been. He claims to be stronger, faster and quicker. Management is taking a different tact with him. If he is bottom 3 in body fat, he's bottom three. I guess its how you look at it. Are the rest of the guys in exceptional shape, and Kadri is merely in good shape? Or is Kadri's fitness really mediocre?

    I don't know what to make of him as a player. I really don't. Winger, centre. Third liner, top 6 forward. I have no idea what he will be, or won't. From the very start this player has been handled badly, just like Schenn and a dozen players before him. Toronto really does send these picks to the wolves. Most of them never recover. I hope Kadri does. I really do.

  2. I guess from my perspective, Jim, while I know Eakins is "honest", he could have simply answered as I suggested above. Surely he knew that by answering as he did, it would open this entire line of debate in this market.

    I see this as planned and orchestrated on the organizations's part. If it's not that, then they missed an opportunity to avoid unnecessary negativity, which is a shame. It's just so unnecessary.

    Thanks Jim.

  3. Excellent summary of the situation with Kadri. Like you I'm puzzled about Eakins comments, and certainly he could have chosen much better words.

    After hearing all of Eakins interview and an interview from Kadri himself, I'm not as concerned about the comments now, and here's why....

    1) Eakins said Kadri was in the bottom 3-5 players on the team as far body fat goes. Well that's not saying he was the worst is it? Suppose 30 people scored 95% or higher on a test and you were in the bottom 3-5, is that so bad? Scores are relative. I've seen this kid in mid-season form with his shirt off, and he was fit and lean. He may not be Zigomanis-healthy, but this kid is not fat!

    2) Kadri admitted he's a picky eater and had a hard time adjusting to Robert's "guru" diet. For those of us who have been on extremely regimented diets, it is a challenge reaching your goal and then maintaining that diet afterwards. When he finished with Robert's camp he probably gravitated to some of the foods he craved while on the diet. The standard is very high now, and for whatever reason, Kadri fell below this new standard.

    3) Kadri admitted he is in the best shape he has ever been for camp. His fitness testing is better than last year despite his body-fat test.

    4) Kadri has no shortage of self-confidence, and I think the coaches have always noted that and they've tried to reel him in a bit. Too often coaches have to build up a players confidence and encourage them to trust their talent/skill. Take Gardiner for example, the coaches had to encourage him to trust his skating ability and to hold onto the puck longer, whereas other D-men they were telling them to make a quick first pass. Kadri is the total opposite, he has so much confidence in his abilities, he may not always make the best play choice. Be honest, despite all the tough criticism the coaches have thrown at Kadri, do you think his confidence has diminished in the slightest? Not at all. What has changed though, is Kadri gets a reality check and comes back trying to prove the coaches wrong (e.g. his defensive play, or his physical toughness, or his tendency to give the puck away). Maybe not the best way of getting results, but it is a tactic that has had some success with Kadri.

    One last observation I have, and I think you (and many would) agree, is that Kadri needs a chance to play a moderate number of consecutive games in the NHL and with consistent line mates. His time in the NHL has been brief and scattered, and he has played with far too many different line mates. Kadri has a much better chance of excelling if he is on a balanced line, and has built some chemistry with the same line mates. That way they know each other's tendencies, positioning and strengths.

    I hope Carlyle can introduce Kadri into the lineup and keep him there. In turn I hope Kadri can stay healthy and continue to get better. Time will tell. (my apologies for such a long comment)

  4. Thanks Don (TML__fan). Well said.

    While I see all of your points, I wonder if, in answer to your question, the Leaf 'tactic' really had led to any success for Kadri? I'd like to think so, but I just don't know.

    That said, I appreciate your perspective on this Don. I agree Kadri seems filled with confidence, and I understand an organization's desire to rein him in a little. I just thought Eakins should have (and could have) handled it differently. Why create a story in Toronto when there just doesn't need to be one?

  5. I watched the whole interview. Eakins just seemed like an honest fatherly type who has told something to a young person multiple times. But Eakins also seemed understand that these are young men and need the constant reminding as they mature. The public mention might have something to do with Kadri being a year older and expecting a bit more accountability.

    Eakins also put this in perspective on twitter:

    Relax people @dallaseakins said @43_Kadri eating habits are bad, he didn’t say he’s not an amazing player.

    Kadri himself said he is a bit of fussy eater. It takes time to change diet.

    Wasn't Brett Hull also out of shape as a young player?

  6. I hear you DP, but if Eakins really wanted Leaf followers to "relax", he would have, by design, chosen his words differently. I saw the entire interview as well. I understand the context and all that and also recognize, as I said in my post, Eakins' tone was fine.

    My point is he could have easily chosen another path with what he said. I still think it was a "planted" comment from up high- and not necessary for the fourth training camp in a row....

  7. In hindsight, recalling Kadri the way they did in 2010 was absolutely ridiculous.

    He'll be a contributing player, and someone who helps produce offense. Kadri is a good player, but he's not an elite one. The Leafs are so harsh on him that it makes me wonder if they still view him as an elite player (remember original talk out of Wilson was this guy will be a point per game player). Maybe they should start treating him like the player he is. First day of camp and you call the kid out?

    At what point does "motivating" a player through the media become the player tuning out everything you say? It's happened enough to wonder at this point.

  8. I don't want to blow this out of proportion, Anthony, but I do share your sentiment. I'm tired of four years of the same numbing public tug between, on the one hand hand, building this kid up beyond what is realistic, and on the other, constantly pushing him to be better.

    It's the same old movie. And as you correctly site- he's a nice player, but at this point, that appears to be it. A nice player, maybe even really nice at some point. But the constant Kadri-baiting (of course the organization would deny that's what they've been doing) is silly.

    My point is not that I think he's a budding star and they should just let a young (entitled?) player do whatever he wants to. But I think he can play, contribute. So at some point, give him direction, coach him, but goodness, just let him play.

    Thanks Anthony. Great post.

  9. From my view of the roster, there's no room for him unless they bury a few guys in the minors or pedal them off in trades.

    This management group has been a lot more talk than action when it comes to having the players who deserve the spot, getting it.

    I'd love to see Kadri get the extended 50+ game look that he should, but I fear it wont happen. And if it doesn't, I don't know where that leaves him.

  10. I often wonder if Burke's oft-mentioned plan has gotten in the way of Kadri's development. I believe the plan intended to include UFA's during the transitional years (part of "other ways to rebuild") until such time that the youngsters were ready.

    If not for Kadri's injury last fall, I think he would have stayed up before Gardiner, however, Jake did such a great job, the Leafs recognized they couldn't make the '10-'11 Kadri mistake twice, so Jake got his shot and made the best of it. Same for Frattin.

    Having acquired UFA's that haven't come very close to 'panning out' it would appear that management has to cover their butts and this has kept Kadri down. There may well be a reigning in of ego that will pay dividends in the future (and I hope the yo-yo effect turns out to have been a wise handling of Kadri, though I rather think it has more to do with management foibles).

    It may be that the presence of Connolly and Lombardi are going to make it difficult for Kadri to make the jump, though I'm hoping to see some trades that might open the door for a young player just itching to prove something (perhaps that is actually his 'hot button' issue and it is being pressed in the media for a purpose... we can continue to hope that may be the case!).

    Part of me wonders if he might actually get a shot (in mid-season form) on the first line, but I would have to see a trade or two before that might happen... I could see the team give him a taste (if someone was injured or playing poorly), but then find him as a regular on a sheltered scoring line.

    Perhaps that'll only happen in another city... if there are dressing room/ personality issues. Wow... to be a bug on the wall and know a bit more about the situation!

  11. And this is largely what I'm saying in the article- let him play for an extended period of time and, as Don (TML__fan) said above, with the same guys.

    Then the organization can make a more reasonable assessment and try to determine where and if he fits, longer-term.

    Thanks Anthony.

  12. All good points, InTimeFor62. But at the end of the day, this just seems odd to me. Why the constant drama?

    As I've said, at some point, they should just let him play.

    Thanks InTimeFor62.

  13. No question the Leafs have botched their handling of Kadri. If they'd just quietly brought him along, without any "team saviour" expectations, who knows how he'd be doing today? As it is, we've yet to see any reason to keep him with the big team.
    Damien Cox has an interesting perspective on this in his blog: "The solution for Nazem Kadri is simple; play great, and no one will talk about your body fat or your diet. . ."
    I think that just about sums it up.

  14. I guess I understand what Cox is saying (I have not read his observations); but my point is: the season hasn't even started yet. Why say anything that makes people focus on the kid even more.

    I don't care if he puts up big points in the AHL. Doesn't matter at this stage. He should, I suppose. He's 22 and in his 3rd year as a professional now.

    What matters is that he gets a chance with the Leafs, and when he does, that they allow him significant time to play as he can and not yank him around.

    It took Lanny McDonald (drafted higher than Kadri) well into his third season to begin to play to his potential at the NHL level- and McDonald, as you know Gerund, was drafted at the age of 20. And he was playing with Darryl Sittler!

  15. I can't grasp what Eakins was trying to do with his comments regarding Kadri's fitness(or lack of). This should have been kept inhouse. I used to think Eakins would some day be a good NHL coach, now I am not so sure. When you have a prospect he should be allowed to mature and become a player in a positive atmosphere, and if he is not becoming the player you want make a trade that works for both sides. How do you get a good return for a player that you continualy slag in the media. I think Eakins needs to learn to keep his mouth shut.

  16. I suppose my feeling is that the Kadri horse is already out of the barn. Because of the previous focus and fuss, he's always going to be under the spotlight. But if he can just deliver as we've been told he can/should/will, I think the spotlight will move on. At least I hope so, for his sake.
    Perhaps Kadri is being punished a bit for what appears to be cockiness. For whatever reason, he does seem a little short on humility. That may just be my impression, exacerbated by the tendency of the press to highlight him.

  17. I'm struggling with this as well, mrj.

    It's not that I think they have to treat Kadri with kid gloves. Not at all. I just don't get four years of constant negativity in the media. Why?

    You said it perfectly- help him, let him develop. If the Leaf brass isn't happy, deal him (and I believe they have tried to for a long time). But talking like this doesn't help his trade value...

    Thanks mrj.

  18. Kadri has always sounded cocky, agreed, Gerund O'. But you want some of that, I assume. (I'm a big fan of humility, but I've pretty much given up when it comes to most professional athletes...)

    But I think you hit the nail on the head: as much as Toronto media (and to some extent we all contribute) makes a big deal out of every little thing, they haven't had many "high" draft picks to focus on in recent years. The scrutiny around Schenn didn't help, and I fear Kadri is battling the same unreasonable expectations, as Anthony noted above.

  19. A good point out of James Mirtle today:

    "As one of the few recent high first round picks the organization has, Kadri seems to get saddled with expectations and coverage way out of line with his talent level every year – and that brings the kind of questions and criticism we saw last week.

    The reality is that he was and is only a middling prospect, one who has had some success in the minors but still has a few things to figure out at the pro level before he realizes his potential as a 40- or 50-point NHLer."

    That's somewhat the way I view Kadri. A guy who is probably destined for the 2nd or even third line on many teams.

    He could turn into a very useful player, but you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment if you expect him to turn into a savior of the team.

    If you just hope Kadri can turn into a near Grabovski level player, then you are probably closer to the reality of what Kadri will become.

    Most everybody loves Grabovski now, but he has had some issues along the way: problems in the Montreal locker room and the off-ice shenanigans at the Vancouver Olympics.

  20. Like Anthony above, you hit the nail on the head, DP.

  21. On an happier note, I have been tracking the Leaf prospects in the OHL.

    Tyler Biggs has 4 goals and 6 points in 5 games.

    Even more surprising 235 lb, David Broll has 4 points in 4 games. He might be a late bloomer and much more than a goon. If a 6'3" 235 lb kid gets 60 points, even as an overage OHL player, then he becomes a very interesting prospect.

    A future third line of Kadri flanked by the hulking Broll and Biggs is a entertaining thought.