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Nazem Kadri, the Maple Leafs and the bouncing ball

In your more cynical Leaf-following moments (admit it, most of us have them), do you ever think that, sometimes, the Maple Leafs drafted Nazem Kadri just to toy with us?

I mean, set aside what they have done to the young man himself over the past three plus years and how confused he must be.  Some of us, as fans, have no any idea what’s going on, either.

To be clear:  I neither think Kadri is a savior-in-waiting or a bust.  Like many young players, he is facing—and perhaps will ultimately successfully climb beyond—many challenging hurdles.  But it is almost comical how things have unfolded for the young winger (though I swear I thought he would be a center coming out of junior and goodness, it’s not like we need any of those…) since the day he was drafted by the Leafs.

Let’s briefly run through just a few of the highlights (low-lights?), capped off by his breakout game on Saturday night down in Texas:

  • June of 2009 he is drafted 7th overall.  Being drafted by Toronto, this immediately means we expect more of him than we reasonably should, considering he was not a first or second overall pick.  But, well, it is what it is, because we are what we are in Leafland.
  • Training camp fall of 2009—he has a very nice camp; turns some heads.  He is, not surprisingly (though he sounded disappointed, naturally- kids always dream big) sent back to junior hockey for further seasoning and development under the tutelage of Dale Hunter in London. (Hunter knows something about what it takes to play in the NHL, having performed in that league seemingly forever...)
  • Kadri has a generally good season with the Knights.  Plays a lot.  Puts up some nice but not astonishing “numbers”.  He is an emergency call-up to Toronto for one game at some point in the 2009-’10 NHL season.  Looks a bit lost but fine in his NHL debut.  He earns 27 points in 12 playoff games with the Knights in the spring of 2010.  All is well and on schedule, it seems.
  • Come training camp in September of 2010, he figures he can make the Leafs, based on the way he sounds in various media interviews.  The Leafs (Burke and Wilson) also seemed very hopeful about him in the summer of 2010.  Training camp goes kind of OK, not great.  But at the end of the exhibition schedule, he has a huge offensive game against the Senators.  Does this earn him a gig with the big team?  No.  We’re told, again not shockingly, that he needs to get bigger, stronger and faster. (Doesn't just about everyone?)
  • So, to start the 2010-’11 season, he is with the Marlies (getting, I’m sure, bigger, stronger and faster).  He is playing fine, though nothing particularly special as I recall.  But the Leafs hit a horrendous scoring slump in the fall of 2010, and whom do they call up?  Yes, our young Mr. Kadri.  He starts off very nicely indeed, playing big minutes on top lines, even getting some power-play time.  However, over time the excitement wears off. His numbers flatten out, his ice time under Wilson decreases significantly.  He goes from first-line winger to third and sometimes fourth-line guy.  I seem to recall there is discussion as to whether he should/could be a center.  Regardless, it’s back to the Marlies.
  • He is called up yet again by the Leafs in the later part of the 2010-’11 season, but again is deemed not quite ready.  We hear he needs to get stronger, and, importantly, needs to turn the puck over far less often.
  • “Numbers”-wise, he finishes his Marlies season (2010-’11) with 41 points in 44 games.  (With the Leafs, he finished with 12 points in 29 games, averaging 15+ minutes of ice time per game.)  The Marlies don’t make the playoffs, so he doesn’t get that opportunity for playoff hockey at the pro level.
  • Come the 2011-’12 season, expectations are he will make the Leafs, surely, this time.  In fact, we almost all have the sense he is not only on the hopeful bubble again but will actually be on the roster when camp breaks.  However, a late nagging training camp injury sets him back.  Others, like Matt Frattin, jump ahead of him on the depth chart.  When Kadri is ready to play, he starts his season with the Marlies—again.
  • He does OK with the Marlies, though nothing particularly to write home about, unless there is something I'm not remembering here off the top of my head.  He eventually gets another shot with the Leafs.  By now my guess is Kadri is not sure what they want him to be.  But he knows they hate turnovers around the blueline.  So he plays a more conservative game at times, but still shows offensive flashes, as evidenced by some shootout winners, etc..
  • Bottom line, he finishes the season with the Marlies, where he ends up with 40 points in 48 games.  (With the Leafs, his numbers were a modest 7 points in 21 games, but he was a plus 2 in that time, averaging between 14 and 15 minutes a night.)
  • In the summer of 2012, he works out hard with Gary Roberts.  Most of us assume, at least I did, that he will show up to Leaf camp (which turned out to be Marlies camp, because of the lockout) chiseled and ready to roll.  On "Day One" of camp, before they even hit the ice, Marlie coach Dallas Eakins decides it would be a good idea to tell the hockey world Nazem is not in good enough shape.  The subsequent reaction from media and fans could not possibly have surprised the Leaf brass.  Why Eakins felt compelled (some kind of motivational strategy?) to utter those infamous comments, I have no idea.  But he’s a coach and I’m sure not, so we should probably assume he knows what he’s doing.
  • A few games into the current Marlie season, Kadri, though being applauded by Eakins for his work ethic, struggles to find the back of the net.  Then Eakins opines that he’s like to see Kadri play with more creativity.  This of course must make the young man think…”hmmm…they scolded me for trying to make plays and causing turnovers.  Now they want me to play I wanted to play in the first place, three years ago…Ah….I’m....confused”.
  • Fast forward to this past Friday night. The Marlies, after their nice comeback win on the road Thursday night, are in Texas to play the Stars.  Loaded as they are with too many roster players because the Leafs can’t play, they designate Kadri  (without a goal in the team’s first 9 games) and another promising prospect, Joe Colborne (didn’t Rick Dudley, before jumping ship for the Habs,  say Colborne could be the Leafs number- two center this season….?) as healthy “scratches”.
  • Back in the line-up Saturday night, Kadri is the first star of the game (the Marlies' third win in a row), with three points.  For the record, Colborne also has a big night with two points.  Eakins is a genius.  All is good in Marlie-world (and Leafland) once again.

Now we’re all updated.  (If any of the above timeline "facts"—as opposed to my own personal observations—are incorrect, feel free to let me know…)

Kadri is 22, in his third year as a professional.  I don’t know if he is a winger or a center.  I’m not sure if the Leafs see him as, ultimately, a third-line checker (really?) or a “top-six” forward. I do know Burke said over and over that Kadri would have to fit here as a top-six forward.

For one night, he was not even top-six on the Marlies.

Hey, we all have been following this sport (and this franchise) long enough to know that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  (The Leafs, though, must be the world's longest-ever re-build.  I’m not a historian…Did it take 45 years to build Rome? ) But Kadri remains a young player with talent and potential, clearly.  He could break out at any time, as he did Saturday night against San Antonio.  He may now go on a roll.

Still, confidence can be a fragile thing.  He’s not the first guy—and won’t be the last—who will go through difficult times.  And he won't be the first or last Leaf prospect to be a healthy scratch.  Many players respond well to being benched.  Some don’t.  For one night at least, he certainly did.

But despite his impressive "rebound" game, I do have questions - in light of not just the “healthy scratch” decision, but the way the Leafs have handled this Kadri situation now for almost three and a half years:

  • Do they, deep down, see Kadri as somehow entitled?  That is, thinking he should already have a spot with the Leafs but not playing hard enough, consistently enough, to earn it?
  • Is he simply the poster boy for this anti-entitlement Burke thing, this  supposed anti-“blue and white “ disease mantra (which I don’t believe is/ever was a real issue with the organization to begin with, pre-Burke and Wilson…)? 
  • Is Kadri the whipping boy for the  “every game is a try-out” organizational ethic?  Is he the test case for the much-discussed "meritocracy' we are supposed to believe exists now in Toronto?
  • Do they like this kid?
  • Have they tried (as I’ve said here many times, I’m absolutely convinced that Kadri’s name has been not only on the table, but has been included in deals that other teams have not signed off on, and thus he’s still here…) to trade Kadri over the past two years or so?
  • Why is the first first-round choice of Burke - a  kid who should be his one his “his” guys in Toronto -  in this situation?
  • Is this all just a case of tough-love, an approach that will make Kadri a top-notch NHL’er? Based on a short sample size of one game after being a healthy scratch, maybe the "wake-up call" worked, eh?

Those who follow VLM somewhat regularly know my view has been this:  the Leafs have, inadvertantly, messed with this kid and shaken if not shattered his confidence.  The whole “yo-yo” up and down thing has to have driven Kadri batty.  One minute it’s “get bigger and stronger”.  Then it’s non-stop talk about his turnovers.  (He can’t be the only guy on this team who turns the puck over—last I checked, we have given up an awful lot of goals over the past few seasons…he wasn’t on the ice for most of them, not even close…) Next we're told he’s not in shape, despite working with the toughest guy in the training business in Gary Roberts.

Look, I don’t much care about any particular player being a healthy scratch here and there.  That’s a coach’s job.  Eakins is a smart guy.  If the coaching staff think a player will benefit from watching the game from up high in the press box, go for it, whether with the Marlies or the Leafs.  I'm good with that.

I just continue to believe there is something going on here that we don’t know about, and damned if I know what it is.

I’ve long questioned this organization’s (and this particularly regime’s) ability to develop players.  Development is not just drafting them and them working under Eakins and his staff.  It means nurturing and developing them in a constructive way, building their confidence.  And whether we keep them with the Leafs or trade them, they should be very valuable assets, each and every “prospect”.  Is Bozak what he should be?  Is Kulemin?

For me, Exhibit A and B of this regime's failure are Luke Schenn and Jonas Gustavsson.  Players drafted or signed amid so much fanfare, yet both are now gone, and heavily criticized by the fan base on their way out the door.  I don’t for a moment put that all on those players.  Schenn, at least, drew what may turn out to be a solid return in van Riemsdyk.  We'll see how Gustavsson fares under a different set-up in Detroit.

Now, it’s all eyes on Kadri.  At some point, as I did with Monster, I’m going to say, just set him free. Please.  If the Leafs won't let him play "his" game here, then let him go somewhere (where he can improve, sure, and get better defensively, etc.) where he will be allowed to, basically, play his game and not be a square peg in a round hole. A team where he will not be so over-coached and so tightly wound that he doesn’t know what he is anymore.

I wondering, before long, if Kadri will ask to be set free, too…..

But after a big game on the weekend, we're all one big happy Leaf family again - right?

At least for now.


  1. Michael,

    The Leafs have an abysmal record when it comes to drafting and developing players, that is certain. You made a great case for that, by just concentrating on what they have accomplished with one specific player. If Nazem Kadri, is going to be a prime time player in the NHL, a third liner or a career minor leaguer, could have been guy. I think, it is up to Kadri at this point and no one else. Regardless of how the Leafs see him, he needs to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and make his mark. This franchise, and its' fans should stop making excuses. The Islanders have won the cup 4 times since the Leafs last win. Enough said.

  2. Kadri owns a great deal of responsibility for his progress, for sure, Jim. To be clear, I am not intending in this post to make excuses for him. I'm simply looking to track his development, see how the organization has handled it, while raising what I believe are reasonable questions.

    Yes, it is very much up to Kadri (though in fairness he is still very young at only 22 years of age). At the same time, I believe that too many young players (past and recent) have not been developed properly by the Leaf organization. There is more to "development" than having Dallas Eakins/the Marlies work with players.

    Thanks Jim.

  3. I seem to recall that Steve Yzerman wasn't a 'well-rounded' player for quite some time before he realized what would be required of him in order to become a Hall of Famer. A key would seem to be the player's appropriation of what is needed and stepping up to the plate with will and intent to become all they can be.

    Granted (and this may be your point Michael), Detroit did let him play to his youthful strengths for quite a while before challenging him to become the well-rounded player we all remember at the end of his career. Perhaps that is the developmental challenge here... Kadri seems to be dealing with multiple developmental mode expectations from above and may well get lost in the morass of well-intended 'training' messages.

    I feel like we expect Kadri to be more mature (than we were at 21/22) and are not helping him to hold onto that which helps him to stand out from the crowd... right now, he mostly seems lost in the mix with little to distinguish himself from others.

    Perhaps we are all a little too focused on him because there's little else to talk about... I know, for many years, I had no idea who our prospects were until they appeared in the lineup (and when they 'disappeared' after a few games) I didn't give them much thought until they showed up again.

    We have so much access to players and developmental league information it may be harder to let a kid mature than it used to be. I hope that we all are able to learn something (after the fact) about how Kadri was properly developed based upon the revelation of what he most needed to excel.

    It's almost like watching your own 20-somethings learning things the hard way, while hoping it could've been easier for them if only they would realize what we're trying to show them (and we know them quite well, too. I hope the same is true of the Leaf development staff).

  4. All fair observations, InTimeFor62.

    As fans, we expect a great deal of youngsters who are often not much more than teenagers- kids, really.

    I've often used Yzerman in this space as an example of a player, like Modano and others, who took years to be "complete" players, as you say. (I usually cite Kessel's modest progress as an all-around player when invoking Yzerman's name...)

    To Jim's point above, yes, Kadri does own responsibility for his own uncertain level of success to this point in his young career. But the organization is also accountable.

    In Toronto, we do indeed have unusual access to "prospect" information. In fact, it is too much. The lockout has made this syndrome even worse, as we crave any bits of Leaf-related news.

    Sometimes the lessons an organization tries to teach are well-intentioned, but too harsh and therefore kill a player's confidence and progress. I hope that's not happening here, though I fear some damage has already been done, as I mentioned in my post.

    Thanks InTimeFor62.

  5. "But after a big game on the weekend, we're all one big happy Leaf family again - right?"

    More like one big happy dysfunctional Leaf family, I'd say. Kadri is another of those designated (by management) "saviours", who doesn't live up to the hype - and who could, really? - and from that point on is in a weird Love him/hate him limbo within the Leaf organization.
    Like you, I have no idea which position is his strongest, or what his true worth is at the major league level. I've seen good stuff and not-so-good stuff, and a very short leash. My hunch is that he won't make it with the Leafs and will end up as one of those "potentially great" players who just never clicks in the NHL - though I really wish he could put a solid NHL season together for us.
    As we were saying the other day, the Leafs need to cool their PR jets when their young hot prospects arrive.

  6. So true, Gerund O'. We draft them and create huge expectations that are not realistic. It may not be too late for Kadri, but it's not a trend that should continue....

  7. It's so tough to strike that balance between giving a guy a clear indication of how you intend to use him but still holding him accountable. If you tell Kadri he's supposed to be a top-6 guy and always give him top-6 minutes irrespective of his play, is that really a good thing?

    I completely agree that in Kadri's case things have been excessive. I have no clue (nor does Kadri, I'm guessing) whether they intend on skating him on the wing or at center, and, as you documented above, he's been bounced from league to league since long before he was ready to play in the NHL.

    I still believe in Kadri but I hope the team provides him with a set of expectations soon and then sticks to those.

  8. Great post Curt- and in no way am I trying to give Kadri a "pass", or suggesting he should not have to earn his ice time, etc.

    I do wonder if other players (usually older, more "proven", yes) haven't been given much more rope. Young players are often immature, and their emotions come into play. They will make mistakes, just as veterans do, but if every little mistake is pounced on as an indication that a particular player is "not ready", I just find the methodology baffling.

    Thanks Curt.

  9. Unfortunately we cannot see the entire picture. We do not really know if Kadri has committed some behind the scene faux pas that have angered management (although I am sure his working out with Gary Roberts was not popular).

    Having said that, I too believe that many Leaf prospects have been mis-managed and over-hyped. I am a firm believer in a player paying his dues in the minors before his debut with the big club. The only exceptions would be an obvious budding superstar who has exhibited maturity beyond his years.

    The Leafs, like many other bottom feeders, have made the mistake of letting the state of the team dictate when prospects are brought up. They are in denial about the need of a rebuild and are sabotaging progress by ruining prospects by putting them in a situation beyond their abilities. I cringed when Burke said we didn't need a rebuild. I have been saddened to see Luke Schenn rushed to the NHL with the consequent stunting of his hockey abilities. It would have been so very beneficial to Schenn and other prospects to give them that extra year in the minors and allow them to progress (and gain confidence) at their own pace.

    As a final note, I believe that calling out players publicly is reprehensible. Ron Wilson threw numerous players under the bus and I feel
    that can only have a negative effect on their play and development. I was shocked when Dallas Eakins criticized Kadri over his fitness. Criticisms of players should be handled internally.

    By the way, I have enjoyed the podcasts. InTimeFor62's allusion to the Hot Stove League in his comments yesterday hit home. It does have that feel. Would you consider the occasional guest in the future. For example I would love to hear someone like Paul Morris reminiscing about his years with the Leafs.

  10. On the money, Pete Cam.

    You may recall that way back in 2010-'11, I was saying here that (I'm sure I wasn't alone) Kadri should spend the entire season that year with the Marlies. None of this up and down stuff. I was pleased that he spent most of last season with the AHL team, too.

    This all just confuses kids, who are often mixed up enough and their head filled with all kinds of stuff from trainers, advisors, agents, and of course team personnel.

    Regarding the "Leaf Matters" podcast: thank you for the kind words. That means a lot coming from you, PeteCam.

    And yes, we absolutely are planning on having guests on, once we get the format firmly established and get some traction under our feet and build an audience. This will (hopefully) include ex-Leafs, fellow non-mainstream writers/bloggers and fans. Paul Morris would be fantastic to have on.

  11. Hi Michael,

    I'm not sure I am so upset with how Kadri has been treated really.

    I mean, yes, I think to a large extent I would prefer to have seen him play exclusively with the AHL, save maybe 2-3 games at the very end of a season just to give him a 'taste'.

    But, I don't necessarily see a kid who's confidence should be shaken, nor the organization really 'toying' with him.

    He's a 7th overall pick. I looked back at the last 20 7th overall picks, and they include named like Shane Doan, Mike Komisarek, Joffrey Lupul, Jeff Skinner, Lars Jonsson, Rostislav Olesz, Colin Wilson, Kyle Okposo, Jack Skille... my point being that even at the 7th position, you may get a star, a dud, or most likely a middle ground 2-3 line wing/3-4 blueliner.

    I also looked at his draft class... Tavares, Hedman, Duchene, Kane... and then BSchenn, Jared Cowen, Ryan Ellis, Calvin deHaan, Zack Kassian all drafted around Kadri. For all the ink Brayden Schenn gets, you know he has played 9 games and has only 1 point more than Kadri? nEllis, who I had heard was a stud defender has played fewer games for Nashville than Kadri has played.

    I truly think Kadri is probably about where he should be in his development. I think it's more the fans and the media who drive this. Yes, he is Burke's first first-round selection. Yes, we need some better forwards.

    I think Burke made a serious mistake announcing he was after Tavares. Kadri seems a consolation prize in that respect. But Kadri is not Tavares or Stamkos or Toews. He's small-ish, he likely did need more work on his defensive game. He's about a point/game AHLer at this point... to me, that says he's probably a decent second or third line NHLer. But it's fans and the media who talk about what a whiz he is and how he'll be the creative centre Kessel needs etc etc.

    As for the Eakins comments, I actually tend to side with the coach. Frankly, I don't recall who put the news out there that Kadri was working with Roberts, but the coach was asked a question about where Nazem was at, and he answered that he was disappointed. I would be too... if Roberts is some fitness guru, how does Kadri come in with the top-3 body fat and still need skating help? I would have hoped the kid would come in and surprise in a positive way.

    I am not saying I think the org has handled him 100% correctly. And I am well aware that even before my time, Leaf management have mishandled guys like Brewer and Mahovlich and others along the way. But truly, and maybe I have rose-coloured glasses on, I think Kadri is probably right about where he should be.

    Schenn and Gustavsson... Schenn was up and down in his development, but defencemen are so difficult to figure out, and they take so long to mature. He really should have had some AHL time. Gustavsson I never liked. Frankly I think he was overhyped by Burke, and in my eyes, he's not an NHL caliber goalie and never was. He's the goalie equivalent of Fabian Brunnstrom, that other Swedish phenom that Burke was bursting to sign who's claim to fame is a first-game hat trick and not much more. I am not sure how much stock I put in "Detroit signed him so he must be pretty good"... after all, Gustavsson is their #2, slotted between a decent Jimmy Howard and a very mediocre Joey MacDonald. It isn't like Gustavsson is going to be battling Vernon, Osgood, Hasek and Joseph for a job.

  12. I'm not sure that Kadri is "behind" in his development, either- he's only 22, after all, as I've said here many times before.

    I just believe the Leafs have handled him poorly from a public (and from a development) perspective. Both the GM and former coach have said things too often to tantalize the fan base, then pulled back and criticized Kadri, often unduly, in my mind. So I blame the organization more, but acknowledge Kadri may well have his own issues.

    As for Monster, we'll see. I just think they handled that one terribly. Schenn, as well.

    Thanks Mark, good stuff, as always.