Kadri quietly getting better

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:35 PM ET

TORONTO - There was a time when Nazem Kadri ambled off the ice, he fully expected a throng of media guys waiting in the wings. Now, he’s kind of taken aback when he sees one lowly print wretch waiting for him after practice.

Remember Nazem Kadri? Hell, four months ago, he was all the rage in Leafs Nation. Now it’s almost like he’s a forgotten man, what with the slew of recent trades, the emergence of James Reimer as the organization’s goaltender of the future, the Phil Kessel slump and all-star game brouhaha, the troubles with the Monster, etc.

Kadri’s actually managed to go about his business and concentrate on his development as a professional player without the distraction of some clown with a microphone attempting to pick his brain after every morning skate.

And according to those in the know — Leafs GM Brian Burke and Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins in particular — Kadri has taken some real steps in improving the part of his game that needed work, that is his tendency to turn the puck over and make ill-timed passes in his own end and the neutral zone. And, he’s apparently managing to do that without stifling the offensive part of his game — his strength, if you will ... the reason why the Leafs drafted him seventh overall in 2009.

In 33 games with the Marlies, Kadri has 13 goals and 20 assists — making him a solid point-per-game man. Even better, at least from the Leafs perspective, he’s a plus-one. He’s also proving that he’s a valuable guy on the power play. And if he’s pouting over the prospect of having to spend most of the 2010-11 season in the minors, well, he’s hiding it well.

“Obviously I want to be in the NHL more than anyone, but I understand you have to pay your dues. Right now I’m not really worried about that,” Kadri said on Tuesday, following a Marlies practice at Ricoh Coliseum. “I’m playing well, things are going for me, I’ve got a lot of confidence here with the coaching staff and Dallas has been putting me in situations where I can be much more responsible. So I think it’s helped me on the long run and hopefully it’s only a matter of time before I’m up at the big club.”

When the Leafs brought up the talented teenager at the beginning of last season, there was some hope — at least with long-suffering Leafs fans — that he might be one of these rare young players who instantly clicked at the NHL level. Instead, the club sent him back to junior, where he put together another fine season with the London Knights, scoring 35 goals with 58 assists in 56 games while adding 27 points in 12 playoff games.

Again, coming out of training camp this season, the hope was that the Kadri would not only stick with the big club, but become a difference-maker on the ice. But, again, he was shipped down to the minors and it’s there he remains, at least for now. (He’s played 17 games with the Leafs this season).

“I don’t have a weak mind like that,” insisted the London, Ont., native, when asked if his time in the minors has taken an emotional toll. “I don’t let little things like this bother me. If I did — playing in Toronto — I’d be in trouble.

“I could be in a much worse spot right now,” he added. “I can think of a million people who’d love to be in my situation right now, so what do I have to worry about? I just have to keep developing as a hockey player and just keep getting better and hopefully get upgraded soon.”

Eakins is not about to erect a statue to Kadri outside Exhibition Place but generally offered praise in sizing up the young forward’s development this season — especially in terms of his Achilles heel, his defensive lapses. And once Kadri gets that figured out, said the personable Eakins, he’ll be a valuable player for the Leafs (if they don’t trade him first).

“There’s no reason this guy can’t be on your top two lines (in the NHL),” said Eakins. “And that’s where he has to play. He’s not going to play on your fourth line. He’s not built to do that, and he doesn’t have the make-up of a third-line centre, either. His brain thinks offensively, and that’s his strength and that’s why he was drafted No.7. And we don’t want to take away his strength, we just want to add another couple of pieces to the puzzle to make him more complete.”

One thing Kadri hasn’t lost during his time in the AHL is his confidence. He’s still convinced that he can be an elite player with the Leafs.

“Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind that I can be a dominate player in the NHL. I definitely have all the tools and assets,” he said. “Maybe I was a little rough around the edges to start, but I can promise you that everything’s going to pan out in the end. And hopefully it’s soon.”

For his part, Eakins doesn’t see anything wrong with a young player such as Kadri, who hasn’t done anything at the NHL level yet, wearing his confidence on his sleeve.

“He’s very confident, borrowing on cocky, which I like,” said Eakins. “And I don’t mean confident like being a dickhead to the fans or the media or being disrespectful to somebody in a restaurant, I don’t mean cocky that way. But I think every professional athlete better have a little something in you, especially when you walk on that ice. And he’s got it.”

Eakins said the world will not end if Kadri sticks around the Marlies a while longer.

“He’s still a boy,” said Eakins. “It’s like when Luke Schenn came in (to the Leafs, 2008). He was already in a man’s body. Whereas Naz is in a normal 20-year-old body. He still has some growth to do. But he’s getting better and that’s the main thing.”


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