Buds' Kadri pounding it out

Top Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri shoots during warm-ups before a pre-season NHL game at the Air...

Top Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri shoots during warm-ups before a pre-season NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on September 22, 2009. (Getty Images)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:01 AM ET

Training camp is still more than two months away, but the heavy lifting has already begun in Nazem Kadri’s bid to become a Maple Leaf.

Quite literally, in fact.

Since the beginning of June, the most exciting rookie prospect on the roster has been arriving at the Air Canada Centre at 8 a.m., four days a week.

There, under the watchful eye of Leafs strength and conditioning coach, Anthony Belza, Kadri is doing the hard time necessary to transform his body from that of a junior boy to an NHL man.

“He’s done a fantastic job of building up muscle and he’s trimmed down his body fat,” Leafs director of player development, Jim Hughes, said Friday in an interview. “It’s early, so we don’t need him to do anything on the ice. Right now, strength and conditioning is the most important thing.”

The off-ice stuff will begin next week with the prospects camp at the Mastercard Centre, but even that in some ways will be immaterial. More eyes will be on Kadri than the 30 others joining him for the week-long sessions, which will be overseen by Hughes, but will also include Leafs assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler.

It wouldn’t hurt if Kadri showed that he was a clear standout among the young hopefuls, but ultimately it is more important that he flashes the hockey skill when real camp begins in September.

The growth and progress of Kadri is certainly one of the most exciting variables heading into the next season, given his potential and expectations, both realistic and otherwise, that will go with it. The Leafs staff monitored the London, Ont., native closely through his last season of junior after setting specific and measurable goals.

One of those was to dominate at that level, something Kadri did in a playoff run in which he piled up nine goals and 18 assists in 12 games.

The next task was to beef up and develop a body that can withstand the physical demands of the NHL. And Belza has been careful to create a program to put the pounds on in the right places.

“(Kadri’s weight) is 186 pounds right now and that’s 186 and strong,” Hughes said. “We certainly believe he’s moving in the right direction.”

The work done with Belza is important on multiple levels. From the day the Leafs selected him with their first-round pick (seventh overall) in the 2009 draft, they knew the biggest concern was his slight build.

In an interview with the Toronto Sun during the OHL playoffs, Kadri said he was tipping it at 179, so he is headed in the right direction.

An added benefit of the summer sweat school is exposing Kadri to working alongside proven pros. Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak and other Leafs regulars have been on hand, as was Dion Phaneuf when he was in town to be feted for his captaincy.

“He’s learning how to work the Maple Leafs way,” Hughes said. “He needs to see how these guys work and be exposed to that. He’s been great. He’s been enjoying it and having fun with it.

“A lot of these (young guys), they kind of think they know how to work out. But when they are with these guys, they see what work really is.”

The Leafs have been careful to temper their expectations for Kadri, essentially saying they are hoping he is ready for a full rookie season come fall but that he will have to earn his spot.

Remember, too, that Burke said Kadri, who turns 20 the day before the season starts, has to be a top-six forward in camp (not a huge challenge given the current depth of the roster) or he won’t stick.

Laying the groundwork in the summer doesn’t hurt. Kadri can’t make the team in June or July, but he can become better equipped to do so.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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