Kadri impresses in hometown tilt

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:48 PM ET

For once, Nazem Kadri looked like a flustered rookie.

Not on the ice.

But by some ice.

The Maple Leafs’ first pick had his back turned and gear off in a zamboni entrance when linemate Niklas Hagman snuck behind and whipped some ice cubes at his legs.

“I know who did that,” Kadri said, recovering with a grin.

Playing in his London hometown Thursday night didn’t exempt Kadri from being picked on by the older Leafs. But he wasn’t complaining — not after scoring his first NHL exhibition goal on a nifty feed from Hagman in the Leafs’ tilt with the Flyers at the John Labatt Centre.

With two NHL preseason games behind him, Kadri hasn’t wavered in his belief he can stick in the bigs this year. He drew an assist in his debut against the Boston Bruins.

“My goal right now is still to make this team and be in the lineup for that first game,” the 18-year-old said. “I know there’s a big difference between exhibition games and regular season ones, that it’s faster and more physical, but the strength of my game is my speed and my skill and I’m trying to use it to my advantage.”

His best gear looks fast enough.

On his goal, he went wide and zipped a laser beam past goalie Brian Boucher to give Toronto an early 2-0 lead. He also kept the puck in the offensive zone on the play that led to Lee Stempniak’s opening tally.

“Everything’s been great,” Kadri said. “The guys on this team are fun to be around. I met (defenceman) Luke Schenn (who was in Kadri’s position last year) in Montreal when I was drafted and I’ve had some time to talk to him about things.

“I talk to (GM) Brian Burke and (head coach) Ron Wilson, too, but they always tell you just do what you do. Be yourself. They also allow room for creativity in the game, which I love.”

He has handled the pressure of playing in Toronto well so far. On Tuesday, he had a “stone’s throw” walk from his hotel to the Air Canada Centre for his exhibition debut and encountered plenty of well-wishers along the route.

“People recognized me right away and that’s Toronto — it’s intense but it’s a great environment,” he said. “You can’t really prepare for that, but playing in London this last year was kind of a mini-version of that and I think that’s helped me.

“You just keep the same routine. I still do the same things (running arena stairs and listening to music) that I always did.”

Burke has said that Kadri is a longshot to crack the roster. If he doesn’t make it, he’ll return to London to star for his hometown Knights and be a favourite for a berth on the Canadian world junior team this year.

The teen has impressed Stempniak, who broke into the NHL with St. Louis at the age of 22 after his college career.

“He’s a younger guy than I was but it’s the same kind of emotions that you go through,” Stempniak said. “As an older player, you just try to give him a pat on the back and encourage him.

“He’s obviously a very fast skater and one thing I noticed about him is he keeps the puck live very well along the boards.”

That’s part of Kadri’s magic. Ever since he was a kid in minor hockey, the puck has always followed him around the ice.

Normally buoyed by legions of family and friends behind the glass at his OHL home games, Kadri didn’t have as large a JLC crew as usual.

“It was harder to get tickets this time,” he said. “I’m going to say I have about 15 in the stands.”

He took the opening faceoff against fellow Londoner Jeff Carter, one of the Flyers’ cornerstone forwards.

They both participated in the pre-game ceremonial faceoff and the puck was dropped by former NHLer Brad Marsh, who played for both the Leafs and Flyers — and the London Knights — in his long career.


Videos

Photos