CARY, N.C. — The second coming of Nazem Kadri officially arrived at about 4:47 Tuesday afternoon when the Maple Leafs bus carrying the 2009 first-round pick pulled up to the tree-lined parking lot of the picturesque team hotel here.
Had this been back on Nov. 12, during the first of Kadri’s callups from the Marlies, there might very well have been photographers dangling from branches trying to get a perfect shot of the kid. It wouldn’t even have been surprising if a Canadian television network hired a local traffic helicopter to track the path of the bus from the airport.
Such was the hype and hoopla surrounding Kadri-palooza just four months ago. Every move, every shift, every decision, was dissected ad nauseum by fans and media alike, treatment normally given to a player deemed to be a saviour of a franchise.
Through it all, Nazem Kadri, 20, never wanted to be described as a “saviour.” Both coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke warned anyone who would listen that they should not weigh the hopes of an entire team on the kid’s young shoulders.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the unfair expectations to be heaped on the kid. Sure enough, after registering just six points in 17 games, Kadri was shipped back to the AHL Marlies on Dec. 29.
While returning to the farm may have been a blow to his ego, Kadri admits being out of the limelight was, in a sense, a bit of a relief.
“I’ve got to be honest. For sure it was,” Kadri said. “Not having everyone on your back constantly was a bit of a change, but it was kind of nice. It kind of let me focus on what I had to focus on and let me do my own thing.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m ready to handle all that pressure. Maybe I just need a little time.”
We’ll give him this much: His stint with the Marlies seems to have been time well spent.
His improvement cuts much deeper than the 17 goals and 24 assists he registered in 44 games with the Marlies. His plus-2 mark, for example, indicates he has tightened up his defensive game, thanks to the help of Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
Moreover, he finally seems to understand that he can’t deke through entire teams like he did in junior. Wilson, for one, was frustrated at Kadri’s refusal to dump pucks in deep back in December, a lesson he finally seems to have learned under the guidance of Eakins.
Asked what makes this version of Nazem Kadri different from the inexperienced prospect Leafs fans watched earlier this season, he replied: “(I’m) just a lot more mature. It’s unbelievable what an extra 30 pro games will do to you. Each game I learned a lot, bit by bit.”
The biggest adjustment?
“Just being able to recognize danger,” he said. “When you’re playing against such good hockey players they can close gaps real fast. At first I didn’t realize it. Now I know when I have an offensive chance, I can maybe take the guy one-on-one or chip the puck in and get it myself ... When a guy’s on me, try not to do too much and turn the puck over. Get it deep and working with my linemates to get it back.”
It seems to be working. Kadri scored three goals and added two assists in three games with the Marlies this past weekend, earning himself a callup Tuesday after Colby Armstrong broke his foot Monday night.
“He’s dangerous. Every time he steps on the ice, the other team has to respect him,” Eakins told reporters on Sunday. “It was a good weekend for a him, a great development weekend.”
Having been showered with such praise, don’t be surprised if he centres Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul against the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC Center on Wednesday in a game that has huge post-season implications for Toronto.
Will it be different this time? Will he be a more composed NHLer? And, will he finally collect that elusive first NHL goal?