A hockey first for Nazem Kadri

Nazem Kadri. (VERONICA HENRI, Toronto Sun file photo)

Nazem Kadri. (VERONICA HENRI, Toronto Sun file photo)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:22 PM ET

TORONTO - Nazem Kadri has never experienced the likes of this in his young hockey career.

He has always been appreciated, been among the go-to guys, a leader in junior and minor hockey where there was always a waiting locker.

Coaches might not always have rolled out the red carpet but unlike what has transpired in Leafville neither have his achievements ever been swept under a rug.

“Like everyone else I’ve had to prove I belong on every team I’ve ever played on — but I guess I’ve never had too much to worry about,” said Kadri, who goes into the weekend as a Maple Leafs’ bubble-boy.

“I guess it would go back to when I was way young, I think I was six and really too young to try out for the AAA team in London. I had to play a year up and I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I went out and played hard. Before I knew it I was playing with a bunch of seven and eight year olds.”

But Kadri is discovering that in the NHL sometimes the most difficult people to impress are the ones on your own side.

To hear Leafs management Kadri hasn’t done much right: He doesn’t play defence. He talks a better game than he walks; he turns the puck over too often. He hasn’t been the top six forward they expected.

Kadri, when he’s honest, allows the uncertainty of his situation has played on his mind.

“Last year I got a taste — but in the back of mind there was always the idea that I’d go back to London (junior Knights). So I didn’t have to worry about making this team.

“Getting cut is something that kind of plays at the back of your head, but at the same time, you have to try not to think about it. If you worry, the pressure builds and you’re gripping the stick too hard.”

He says Dion Phaneuf, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and “a lot of the guys in the room” have helped “me calm down.”

The grousing that Kadri wasn’t as good as he advertised started early.

“There are a lot of little junior things we have to get out of his game,” head coach Ron Wilson, who put Kadri on a line last night with Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, told reporters early in camp.

To hear general manager Brian Burke, Kadri’s ticket to the Marlies was all but punched: “He’s not anywhere near to the level we had hoped for and expected,” Burke said.

There is a theory that Leafs management is merely taking a pre-emptive strike to make sure an impressionable kid who suddenly finds himself the centre of media attention doesn’t end up with such a swelled head that the swell stats he was supposed to produce never happen.

In other words, they decided to take him down a peg — but, when the final roster goes up, Kadri will be on the team.

“I think it was to light a fire under me. I wasn’t playing too great, but I think I’ve got it going now. But it’s been a bit different,” said Kadri, using his words carefully.

If this is an exercise in tough love to show Kadri that it is a privilege, not an inevitability, for him to wear an NHL uniform, it looks like it has gotten through.

If you believe management Kadri is in a three-way battle with Tim Brent and John Mitchell for one spot.

But the club wants him to be a top-six forward — in other words help get pucks into the net. Of the three, the guy with the biggest upside to accomplish that would be Kadri. So, while Wilson and Burke needle, threaten and prod, perhaps it’s as much about mind-games as it is the one on the ice. Even if Kadri doesn’t make the Leafs out of training camp there isn’t anyone who doesn’t believe he won’t soon be in the lineup. Wilson alluded as much after yesterday morning’s practice.

“The next two games aren’t about ending anyone’s career. The drama over who’s going to make our team seems to be amplified here. This is my 18th year coaching and the first three or four games you go with one lineup and inevitably in about a month, three or four different guys are playing. I don’t anticipate it being any different this year.”

So, while there is much speculation that the two weekend exhibition games are Kadri’s last stand — in reality they are none of the kind.

He’ll be a Maple Leaf. Probably opening night. But, if not, soon. Very soon.

“You don’t bury people,” said Wilson. “I want them to be ... aware of what they need to work on. If you can’t stand the pressure in the preseason how are you going to take it in the regular season or playoff games.

“We’re just trying to build some mental toughness here.”

Here’s hoping Nazem Kadri gets the memo.


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