TORONTO — “Are you happy now that Randy Carlyle is no longer your coach?”
The question, directed at Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, comes out of left field and spurs Leafs TV’s Paul Hendrick to mock-check his Twitter feed for some breaking news he might have missed.
The questioner, perhaps a victim of too much talk radio or an HBO viewer who drew conclusions from last year’s 24/7, cannot be faulted for his inaccuracy. He can’t be more than 14 years old.
Kids say the darndest things.
And though he’ll chuckle about it later, Kadri takes the kid’s pointed query in stride, explaining that his head coach, in fact, signed an extension this summer and that sometimes the people who want the best out of you push you the hardest.
“We got to the playoffs with him. So why can’t we do it again?” Kadri tells a congregation of inquisitive puck-lovers aged 10 to 14.
One hundred minor hockey players are gathered inside the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence, the Leafs’ practice home, on the summer break’s final Friday to train with and learn from Kadri as part a free Sport Chek development clinic.
And they ask some fantastic questions, ones you never hear in scrums.
Q. If you had to be traded, which team would you like to go to?
A. Somewhere close to home. Not Vancouver or L.A. because they’re too far away in a different time zone. Somewhere like Montreal or New York or Buffalo that’s close.
Q. Do you ever get scared you won’t play well and lose some of your fans?
A. Good question, buddy. Sometimes. I used to when I was younger, but as you get older, you find out your true fans will be your fans whether you struggle or succeed. All you can control is your game on the ice.
Both Kadri (individually) and the Maple Leafs (collectively) are entering a critical season. Toronto’s front office has been overhauled and the roster has been tweaked in response to a train-wreck conclusion to 2013-14 that saw the club plummet out of a playoff position.
And despite registering his first 20-goal NHL season, the 23-year-old Kadri’s campaign was viewed as a disappointment in many eyes, considering his points-per-game dropped from 0.92 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 to 0.64 last year.
Factor in that the second-line centre with first-line dreams will be on the business end of his two-year, $5.8-million bridge deal, and there is no mistaking his objective: Light. Red. Lamps.
“I’ve really been working on my shot and my release, knowing a lot of NHL goalies can’t be beat without a quick release,” says Kadri. “The power doesn’t necessarily have to be there, but the release definitely does. I’m trying to score a few more goals and get more pucks on net.”
The London, Ont., native has invested hours in the gym this summer, working on wrist curls and strengthening his forearms and shoulders specifically to sharpen a shot that once yielded him 35 goals in 56 OHL games with the Knights.
“At the [Leafs practice] facility we’ve got this new thing called the RapidShot, and basically it simulates an NHL game with NHL passes. It feeds you passes from each side and times your release and [measures] your power and your accuracy,” Kadri says. “So that’s something I’ve definitely been kept busy with this summer.”
“If I ain’t the greatest, then I’m headed for it.” —Drake, “0 to 100”
Kadri says he hasn’t targeted a number of goals to hit, but rest assured it’s greater than 20. He tells the kids he thinks about winning the Stanley Cup and becoming an Olympian “every day,” representing Team Canada on a grander stage than he did during May’s world championships.
“Every single year I like my production to go up and up, so I want to get better [in terms of] goals, points, assists, plus/minus, time on ice,” he says. “These are all things I think about and can improve on.”
Kadri’s team, unquestionably, can improve in a few statistical categories, too. Though he doesn’t view any of GM Dave Nonis’s free-agent additions as “major ones,” Kadri mentions Daniel Winnik, Stephane Robidas and David Booth as shrewd depth pickups. Also, he believes the return of right winger Matt Frattin — “a good friend” who failed to catch on with the big clubs in L.A. and Columbus — is a better fit in Toronto, even if Kadri’s Line 2 mates, Carlyle tells him, will be determined by training-camp competition.
“As we saw in the  playoffs, that’s how you’re going to make it deep in the playoffs—having that second- and third-line scoring,” he says. “We know the core of the team has basically stayed the same, and that’s the core that made it to the playoffs [in 2013].”
Ah, yes: 2013.
The spring that ended with Toronto’s infamous Game 7 loss in Boston, and the summer that ended with Kadri, then a restricted free agent for the first time, threatening to skip camp if he couldn’t get a fair deal from the franchise that drafted him. (The sides, of course, reached a two-year show-me contract.)
As we’ve seen with Ryan Johansen and P.K. Subban this summer, a standout second season in a bridge deal can give the player considerable bargaining power.
Though he won’t say it so explicitly, Kadri is well aware that his goals total this season will directly affect his bank balance. That he’s been under the contract-year microscope before, he says, gives him relief, not anxiety.
“I’ve been in this situation before, so I feel like that really comforts me a lot. Just being able to go out there and play my game and not worry about that too much,” he says. “You can only control what you can control, and that’s my performance on the ice. I’ve been doing everything I possibly can to get myself ready and prepare for this upcoming season, so knowing that is something that sits well with me.”