Giving the kid a hand

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:10 PM ET

TORONTO - It may say as much about the new captain of the Maple Leafs as it does about the young player being groomed for a smashing rookie season come fall.

But when Dion Phaneuf invited Nazem Kadri to his summer home in Prince Edward Island recently, it may have been a huge step in the development of both men in their high-profile roles with the hockey club.

The purpose of the trip to Atlantic Canada was ostensibly for Kadri to appear at a Special Olympics Festival fundraiser with Phaneuf, a good cause that the colourful defencemen lends his support to in the off-season.

That was the public show, anyway. Privately, Kadri stayed at the summer estate where Phaneuf goes to unwind with family and friends away from the spotlight of Canada’s hockey mad cities.

Unofficially, it may have been the first significant act of leadership under Phaneuf’s captaincy.

“We did the charity event and hung out at his place, it was a pretty great experience,” Kadri said at the Mastercard Centre on Monday following his on-ice session at the Leafs’ prospect camp.

“It was especially so for a young guy like me. Dion has spent some time in the NHL. He knows what he’s doing and he’s trying to put me under his wing.

“He’s a great guy and a great leader. I’m looking forward to hopefully being on his club.”

The Leafs are doing what they can to ensure Kadri is given all the tools to make the roster leaving training camp and it goes beyond rushing a prospect to fill the glaring need for top-six forwards.

For the past month, Kadri has been making the drive four days a week from London to the Etobicoke practice facility for extensive wait training to help bulk up for the pros. As the team’s most recent first-round pick (seventh overall in 2009), big things are expected of Kadri, especially after a strong second half and playoff run with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

This week, it’s the Leafs annual prospect camp, which Monday focussed on a gruelling session under Leafs skating coach, Graeme Townshend. Of the 31 on the ice, Kadri is the only one with a serious shot at sticking with the big team at the main camp, but management wants to ensure the flashy forward stays as grounded as possible.

The rest of the summer will see more weight work, informal pickup sessions with some Leafs veterans beginning in the next couple of weeks and ultimately training camp.

“I know better than anyone this isn’t going to be handed to me,” Kadri said of making the Leafs. “It’s up to me.

“The bottom line is if I show up and play, I will get an opportunity and once I do, I’m going to cash in on it.”

The process of cashing in has been ongoing for Kadri, as many inside and outside of the organization are banking on the skilled playmaker to make a meaningful impact as a rookie.

At the end of last season, coach Ron Wilson candidly said seeing Kadri in a Leafs uniform as one of the team’s big off-season hopes for improvement.

What is certain is that Kadri will be given every opportunity — both on and off the ice — to prove he is worthy of making the lineup as one of Burke and Wilson’s top-six forwards.

“He’s pencilled in but not penned in,” Leafs director of player development, Jim Hughes said Monday during a break from the action at the team’s Etobicoke practice facility.

“As (Leafs’ assistant general manager) Dave Nonis has said, he has to come in here and earn the right. He’s got the attitude and he’s got the burning desire. He also needs some tough love and he’s getting it and he’s going to continue to get it.”

Which is where the getaway with Phaneuf may have even more profound meaning long term.

There will be a time when the new captain will have to come down hard on the hotshot and that too will be a big part of Kadri’s growth. But after seeing the fun, nurturing side of Phaneuf — which included lunch with his celebrity girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert — the tough stuff will be that much easier to digest.

Not to overstate it, but Phaneuf’s gesture — if that’s what this was — certainly counters some absurd suggestions that he isn’t suited for the captaincy before he even had a chance to prove it.

Kadri isn’t about to spill all the specifics of Phaneuf’s counsel, but suffice to say he came back to Ontario enthused and impressed.

“He told me that when he was a younger guy he was eager to make it in the NHL, but you can’t be too eager,” Kadri said. “You have to be confident, but you can’t be too confident.

“He just told me to do what I’ve been doing. I was picked for a reason and the guys in the organization like what I’m doing.

“It was a real eye-opener for me. We just kind of hung out and had some lunch and enjoyed some P.E.I. weather. I can’t say enough about it.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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