There was a brief moment in the careers of Nazem Kadri and John Tavares when the NHL centremen were more than peers; they were equals.
When the London Knights of the OHL made a blockbuster mid-season deal during the 2008-09 season to acquire Tavares from the Oshawa Generals, Kadri was London’s incumbent top dog.
Sure, Tavares might have been projected to be the No.1 pick in the 2009 NHL draft since his days dominating as an under-ager with the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League in minor midget and being granted entry into the OHL as a 15-year-old, but the Knights already had a No.1 centre.
“He was an easy guy to play with,” Kadri said, the Toronto Maple Leafs centre who will be facing off against his old teammate Tuesday night when the Leafs visit Tavares and the surging New York Islanders. “Just give him the puck. He’s going to score goals.
“I remember the Hunters (Knights co-owners Mark and Dale Hunter) came up to me and asked me about the trade, what I thought and I was all for it. Whatever it took to make our team better.
“We were roommates, we had instant chemistry, it was fun.”
The trade was supposed to help the Knights get past Taylor Hall and the Windsor Spitfires for the OHL title. It nearly worked. The Knights lost to Windsor in five games in the OHL conference finals, although all five games were decided in overtime. Windsor eventually won the Memorial Cup.
But with Kadri shifting to the wing to play alongside Tavares, the Knights scored by the bucket. After their 14-game playoff run, their totals were nearly identical, with Tavares counting 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points, and Kadri getting to the 21-point mark with nine goals and 12 assists.
Since then, their paths have diverged, with Tavares gaining recognition as a potential Hart Trophy candidate while Kadri is still playing behind Tyler Bozak in Toronto. But Kadri remains ever confident that he has what it takes to match up with his old teammate, or any of the NHL’s elite centres.
“I think talent-wise there’s not too much difference, to be honest,” Kadri said. “Johnny’s a guy that works hard and that's something he’s learned from Day 1, so I’m getting my work ethic going and doing everything I can to be one of those players.”
Tavares has fulfilled the promise held for him as a Toronto hockey prodigy of sorts. Through five games this year in his return from a season-ending knee injury suffered at the Olympics in Sochi the Islanders are 4-1-0 and Tavares is tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead with nine points.
Kadri was taken No.7 overall after then-Leafs general manager Brian Burke failed in his public effort to move up in the draft for Tavares and spent most of his first two years in the AHL before making it to the NHL for good.
So far this year Kadri hasn’t quite got on track, offensively, with just two goals and no helpers in six games and he continues to struggle to earn the complete trust of head coach Randy Carlyle, who was lamenting having Kadri on the ice so much against the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg as the Leafs lost both ends of their home-and-home series against Detroit last week.
The Detroit veteran scored a goal, added four assists and dominated the face-off circle, while Kadri was scoreless while going 7-of-24 on face-offs.
But having seen Tavares work up close and shared in collective success back with the Knights, Kadri believes that gap isn’t as wide today as some might think.
The numbers give him some measure of support. During Kadri’s breakout year in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he finished with 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) to Tavares’ 47 (28 goals, 19 assists). But when ice-time and situational play is factored in, Kadri looks even better still, as he averaged 3.29 points per 60 minutes in 2012-13 at even strength and 1.72 in 2013-14.
Tavares was at 2.16 points per 60 minutes in 2012-13 and 2.39 last year. Tavares has averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time the past three seasons while Kadri’s career high was 17:23 a year ago.
No wonder then when Kadri looks at Tavares’ resume it’s not necessarily his spot on Team Canada he relishes, or the six-year, $33-million contract he’s on, it’s the ice time he gets as the Islanders’ undisputed top gun.
“I’d love that opportunity. Being an offensive guy, that (extra ice) is something that can get you an extra 10, 15, 20 points a season," Kadri said. "That’s something you have to earn, and Johnny’s earned that right. He’s stepped in there from the moment he got there and been an impact player.
“I’m still learning my way and trying to become one of those players. I have some work to do, but I’m on my way, that’s for sure.
It’s a perfect of example of what Carlyle describes with some amusement, but also with admiration Kadri’s irrepressible self-belief.
“He’s a tremendously confident young man,” Carlyle said. “It’s a strength because when things aren’t going the way he would like it to go, he believes he can change it because he believes in his skill-set and his abilities and that he has the things necessary to make something happen.”
Short of Morgan Rielly morphing into Drew Doughty, nothing would serve the Leafs better than if Kadri could become the player he believes he can be and that his old linemate is very close to becoming.
“Obviously he was taken No.1 in the draft for a reason. He’s a heck of a hockey player,” Kadri said. “And I’m trying to be something like him or a Crosby or (Pavel) Datsyuk or a (Evgeni) Malkin or whoever the top players are. That’s who you are inspired to be.”
Kadri believes he can be great. He’s seen Tavares up close. He believes they’re not that far apart.
Maple Leafs fans can only hope Kadri proves himself right.