Lessons learned: Nazem Kadri embracing veteran role with Maple Leafs
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TORONTO — In March 2015, Nazem Kadri had his most humiliating experience as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
After showing up late to a team meeting on a Sunday morning, interim coach Peter Horachek suspended Kadri for three games. Kadri wasn't making a good impression on newly hired president Brendan Shanahan, who was in the process of putting together the team he wanted for the future and was concerned the forward didn't seem interested in being a part of the rebuild.
Two and a half years later, Kadri calls the episode a "crossroad."
"That point in time I had to make a decision and looking back I felt like I made the right one," Kadri said this week as the Maple Leafs opened training camp.
It was assistant general manager Mark Hunter who vouched for Kadri based on their time together with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
"I feel Mark put his neck on the line for me and said, 'This kid can be a player,'" Kadri, now 26, recalled. "He had my back and I'll always have his. I want to make him look good."
Kadri is in a better place now, saying the current vibe in Toronto is "night and day" compared to his early years in the league.
"It's amazing that I did still end up here as far as all the general manager changes, player changes, coaching changes," Kadri said recently. "I've seen a lot of guys come and go with this organization and it feels good to finally have an impact and have a great team around us."
During his roller-coaster Leafs career, Kadri has seen three general managers, four coaches and a complete overhaul of the organization.
"When this all started I knew I could do it, just had to change a few things to become important to the franchise, along with teammates' help, guidance from management and coaching staff," said Kadri. "I just didn't want to disappoint so I needed to figure it out."
Kadri stayed focused on hockey and eventually earned the trust of the new regime, landing a six-year contract extension worth US$27 million that keeps him in the Leafs fold until 2021-22.
Selected seventh overall by Toronto in the 2009 draft, Kadri made his NHL debut in 2010 against San Jose, taking his first faceoff on a line with Viktor Stalberg and Lee Stempniak. Only Kadri and Tyler Bozak remain from that roster.
But that was just a taste of the NHL. He'd spend his first two pro seasons shuffling between the Leafs and the American Hockey League's Marlies, before finally becoming an everyday NHLer in 2013 under new coach Randy Carlyle.
Despite the personal stumbling blocks, front-office changes and public criticism — he was once called out by former Marlies coach Dallas Eakins for being overweight and having a poor diet — Kadri says he's OK with what he's gone through.
"What I appreciate is nothing was ever given to me as a high pick," he said. "I was never given a spot on the roster, given certain things like (power-play) time. I had to go out and earn it and prove myself and at this point I think we are on the right track."
Last season, Kadri reached the 30-goal mark for the first time, playing a different role in the shadow of star youngsters Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, and helped Toronto reach the playoffs for the first time in an 82-game season since 2004.
For the first time in his career, the Leafs are at training camp with realistic expectations to win games. That alone has made everything worth it for Kadri.
"We're a confident group, positive group, a little swagger to us now and we understand we can hang with the best teams," said Kadri. "We're no longer in a feel-out process where we don't know which guys are around or what systems we play.
"Everything is crystal clear."