By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
Maple Leafs pivot Nazem Kadri made a quick transition from problem child to a problem for the rest of the NHL last season. Now he’s looking to prove he isn’t a one-season wonder.

Nazem Kadri’s eyebrows are way up and he’s nodding, sitting in the stands at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility. It’s a couple days before he’ll hit the ice below to open his ninth NHL training camp in this city, and the topic at hand is trash talk. “I’ve got a pretty big mouth,” he says, grinning, an admission that’s quickly confirmed by frequent linemate and good friend, Leo Komarov.

When Kadri is tasked with shutting down, say, Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, you’ll see that jaw going. Most of his comments are too colourful to repeat here from his blue plastic seat, but the Leafs centreman will get into the tame stuff. If McDavid makes a mistake, he’s all over it: “Nice turnover.” If there’s no mistake, Kadri manufactures one. “Half the time I’m lying,” he says, flashing those teeth again, “just to try to get in their head.”

Kadri has had a big mouth his whole career — just ask his dad, Sam (who also swears Tom Cochrane came on the radio singing “My boy’s gonna play in the big league” seconds after his son was born). Of course, that mouth is only a miniscule part of what Kadri does to try to make life difficult for some of the best in the world, but it comes in handy while doing a job he never dreamt he’d do. “Never for a second,” he says, did he figure he’d be a shut-down guy. But on the heels of a career-best campaign that saw him put up 32 goals and 61 points while also often facing the opposing team’s best, Kadri proved he’s an elite two-way forward, something he’d shown glimpses of earlier in his career. Heading into this season, there’s a different feeling for the 26-year-old from London, Ont. “I’m already proven,” he says, his gaze steady and unblinking beneath the brim of a black ball cap. “I’m established.”

Kadri will be the first to admit it took time and many a mistake to get established. Five years ago, his AHL coach basically called him fat. Two and a half years ago, he was suspended three games for sleeping through part of a team meeting, and he figured his days in Toronto were numbered: “I didn’t know if I was coming or going.” It took a reinvention on and off the ice for the seventh-overall pick in 2009 to become the integral part of this team many expected he would be. “He’s really comfortable in his own skin now — that’s the best way I can put it,” says Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. “And we’re comfortable because of it.” As the Leafs brass should be, because Kadri thriving up the middle has come just in time for a Toronto team that, for the first time in a long time, actually inspires hope for the future.

The man in the mirror
Kadri says that two and a half years ago "I didn't know whether I was coming or going." Some Babcock-inspired self-reflection, though, has left him feeling "proven" and "established."

You don’t have to turn back the clock too far to find the humiliating moment Kadri was forced to question his future. On March 8, 2015, he slept through his alarm and his late appearance to a morning meeting earned him a suspension. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told media “there’s a history there,” and the message was clear: Kadri had to shape up.

Kadri has since admitted he was burning the candle at both ends, going down a bad road when it came to his actions off the ice. But he also didn’t sense he had much support at the time, that he was being left to learn the hard way. “I felt like I was always stranded, and when I made a mistake, I had to kind of fend for myself,” he says now, pointing to how young guys today are better protected under Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock. “It was tough sometimes, but that’s no excuse for acting the way I did.”

With a pre-camp morning skate in the books, Kadri is now dressed head to toe in golf gear, other than sandals he’ll replace with spikes ahead of an afternoon tee time. He smiles easily, chatting about his two little nieces, who he spent a bunch of time with this summer back home in London, calling his mom “a bit of a hoarder” because she still hangs on to articles written about him, which he says he doesn’t read “because if I did, I’d go crazy, and then I wouldn’t have my sanity.” He turns 27 two days after the Leafs open their season, and he can now look back at that suspension he got two-and-a-half years ago as “the crossroad” in his career. “After that moment, I totally changed everything,” Kadri says. “I wanted to become a better person, a better teammate, more sensitive, more unselfish. I didn’t used to dedicate my entire life to what I did. Now it’s an absolute 180. It’s all I do. It’s all I think about. It’s all I want to do. I’m more defensive [and] I’m more responsible — that’s what I’m most proud of.”

This is not to say he flipped a switch and everything clicked overnight. Far from it. On Day 1 of training camp earlier this month, Babcock said Kadri looked like he had the best summer since he’d known him, and that “he just has to keep getting better.” Kadri may be one of the veteran players on this young Leafs roster, but there’s plenty of room for growth.

“He still needs to work on it,” Komarov says, of Kadri’s defensive play. “I think Babs helps a lot. He’s pushing me hard, pushing him hard, and Nazy’s a guy who’s got a lot of confidence. If you talk to him a lot, he learns it and he gets way better. He’s good at that.”

Kadri laughs about how much time he spent in Babcock’s office in 2015 and 2016. “I always say my jersey’s in the rafters up in his office because the first year he got here, I was literally in there every single day,” he says. It wasn’t always fun, but it was honest. “We don’t have to read between the lines, we don’t lie to each other,” he says.

“I didn’t used to dedicate my entire life to what I did. Now it’s an absolute 180. It’s all I think about. I’m more defensive and I’m more responsible — that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Starting during Babcock’s first year in town, Kadri studied the game more, watched more video of himself and of his opponents. He had just one goal on 81 shots in the first 19 games of that season, but finished 2015–16 with a team-leading 45 points. His 260 shots were 12th in the entire league, he didn’t sleep through any alarms, and in April of 2016, he signed a six-year contract extension that pays him an average $4.5 million through the 2021–22 season.

Kadri is known for supreme confidence that borders on cockiness, and Komarov says, with a little smile, that his buddy is “sometimes” too confident. But as promising as that first season under Babcock was, there were still moments Kadri questioned himself. “I’d have doubts sometimes, especially in a market like Toronto,” he says. “Scoring droughts, things like that kind of make you second guess.”

Opening the floodgates
A scoring drought to open 2015-16 left Kadri second-guessing himself. Last season was a different story as he managed to rank among the NHL's top 20 goal-scorers.

There wasn’t much second-guessing last season, when he finished with two more goals than McDavid, and the 19th most league-wide, while also getting under the skin of many of the guys ahead of him in the scoring race. Among players who scored 30 or more goals, none started in the defensive end more than Kadri, and it isn’t even close. He had a career-high 62.6 per cent defensive-zone starts, and the next best in that group didn’t even crack the 50 per cent mark — Cam Atkinson of Columbus came in at 49.8.

Kadri’s finest moment at both ends probably came against McDavid last November 1. He not only held the Oilers star to zero points that night, but Kadri also scored twice, including the overtime winner, when he wheeled past No. 97, held him off on a partial breakaway, then slid the puck past Cam Talbot. After that win, Kadri had a chat with his dad, which he often does. “Connor is so good — he’s so fast,” Kadri told him. “He was so pumped to get that challenge, and to be able to come out on top,” Sam says.

That drive is what makes Kadri ideal for the pest role, according to Morgan Rielly, who’s been Kadri’s teammate the last four seasons. “Naz really doesn’t have anything that lots of other guys don’t have — he’s not overly big, he’s not overly fast,” the defenceman says. “But he’s ultra-competitive. He wants to win that much.”

And he revels in irritating the league’s elite. A broad grin crosses Kadri’s face when he thinks back to the moment last season, when, as his dad puts it, “everyone in the building wanted to kill him.” In Game 5 of Toronto’s second-round series against Washington at Capital One Arena, Kadri laid a low hit on Alex Ovechkin that took out the Russian star. (Ovechkin returned in the second period.) Kadri was heavily booed after that. “I loved it,” he says. “That gets me excited. It means you’re making an impact in the game; it means you get noticed. I’m not one to back down, as everyone knows.”

“Naz really doesn’t have anything that lots of other guys don’t have — he’s not overly big, he’s not overly fast. But he’s ultra-competitive. He wants to win that much.”

But to see Kadri in his street clothes is to wonder how he can be such a physical presence on the ice — how he continues to surprise even his own teammates with periodic monster hits. “You can’t be scared of him,” Komarov argues, and it’s true. At six feet and 195 pounds, Kadri’s not small but he’s also not big, hardly the striking presence many NHLers present at first glance. Walk into the Leafs dressing room and it isn’t Kadri you’re pointing at to physically wear down all six-foot-three and 230 pounds of Ovechkin.

Kadri approaches that matchup a little differently than he does most others, on account of the weight advantage in favour of the Capitals star. “I’m not gonna try to do the same thing with McDavid as I am with Ovechkin, because Ovechkin’s twice the size of me,” Kadri explains. “I’ll be physical with him, but I’m gonna have to be more conscious and get better body position, because I can’t outmuscle him. Connor and Sid, they’re strong guys, too, but you get a little more leeway because we’re similar sizes.”

Making (up for) weight
Kadri may give up 30 pounds to Ovechkin, but that doesn't stop him from hounding the Caps star on D. "I’ll be physical with him, but I’m gonna have to be more conscious and get better body position," he says.

In most cases, Kadri is doing his best to work on the old cliché of taking away time and space, doing the things he hates having done to him when the puck is on his stick. “I try to bump into them as often as I can,” he says. “Being an offensive player on the other hand, I know it sucks when you have no room and you’re being smothered. It’s very frustrating.”

Kadri’s attack-first attitude on the ice sometimes gets him into trouble, and if ever he needs reminders about his defensive responsibilities he’ll still get called into Babcock’s office for what the coach calls “a tightening.” That’s also a role the man known as “Uncle Leo” took on a fair bit last season to help keep Kadri in line. Says Komarov: “I’m pretty hard on him sometimes, because he tries to do some crazy plays. He’s a skillful guy and he likes doing whatever he pretty much wants. When you have an easy play, he sometimes wants to look fancy, and usually it’s really good, but if not, usually I’m the guy who has to back-check for him.”

Those breakdowns are often followed by yelling. “We got into some big fights on the bench,” Komarov says of last season. “It’s more like supporting each other, because we want to win so much. That’s how we are. I make mistakes, he makes mistakes, we yell at each other a little bit, then the game is up and we’re watching a movie together.”

Komarov and Kadri have a funny, brotherly relationship. They like to rip each other. Komarov swears, with a big smile on his face, that Kadri once thought Argentina was in Europe, that he’s “not one of the smartest guys,” and that sometimes it seems like Kadri’s “still in high school.” In the next breath, though, Uncle Leo says: “He knows a lot of stuff,” and, “he’s a guy you want to die for.”

The two are notorious for competing head-to-head in practice, and the loser usually has to do a menial task, like take off the other guy’s skates. When Komarov wins, you’ll hear nothing. “When I lost, he posted it,” Komarov says, grinning and shaking his head. “He loves Instagram and shit like that.” The picture of Komarov untying Kadri’s skates last season is accompanied by the caption: “He didn’t win.”

“He’s one of the best shut-down guys in the league. And the thing with him is he’s so good offensively, too. He can do both.”

Rielly says Kadri is often the centre of attention in the dressing room, whether he’s the middle of a funny conversation, singing along to Drake or dancing. “He’s usually a topic that gets talked about a lot,” Rielly says.

If you ask Kadri, he’s also the mood-setter, because he’s the team’s afternoon and pre-game DJ. He tries to keep everybody happy with a playlist that includes Jay Z, Kanye, Calvin Harris and, of course, Drake. “Right before the game, I definitely amp it up a little bit,” he says. But Rielly says that DJ role isn’t fully established, in part because Kadri plays zero country: “He hasn’t won over the crowd yet.”

With Auston Matthews panning out rather nicely as the team’s No. 1 centre, Kadri’s role as a dependable two-way guy is well-defined. And though Komarov figures he’ll likely have to keep Kadri in line at times this year, the veteran winger says Kadri is “way better” defensively than he used to be. “I mean, he’s responsible,” Komarov says. “He’s one of the best shut-down guys in the league. And the thing with him is he’s so good offensively, too. He can do both.”

Two-way Everywhere
Kadri's play isn't the only way he manages to embrace extremes. Komarov notes that Kadri's "not one of the smartest guys” right before describing him as "a guy you want to die for."

The focus now for Kadri is improving on the big strides he made last season, when he earned his way onto the Selke Trophy ballot for the second time in his career. Kadri exceeded his career-high goals by 12, and only seven players in the league struck more times than he did (12) on the power play. Kadri created a lot of those man-advantage situations, too — he ranked among the top 20 in the league in penalties drawn last year, with 31. He was also way up in the penalties taken category, with a career-high 39 in 82 games, no doubt a result of his renewed focus on attempting to slow and wear down the league’s elite.

This is what the Leafs front office envisioned for Kadri, a shut-down guy with a big offensive upside who could on some nights stop McDavid and then take it the other way and put it in the net. “We always thought he was capable of taking on that role,” Lamoriello says, “but until you really see it, you just don’t know for sure. What he’s done and the year he had and the role he’s accepted as far as the way he plays, he’s just been tremendous.”

Kadri’s eyes light up when he thinks about the matchups ahead this season — the same excitement he shows when talking about his big mouth and his affinity for trash talk. “Me and my buddy Drew were actually talking about this recently,” Kadri says, referring to the Kings’ Doughty, a fellow Londoner he first played with at age six, when Kadri cracked the seven-year-old rep team in their hometown. “We get hyped up when a good player comes into town and we know we’re going to be matched up against him. We get excited, we get ready,” he explains. “I feel like that brings out the best in us, because if you’re not on, they’re gonna make you look bad — and you never wanna look bad.”

The goal for Kadri this season is simple, to follow up his best yet. “It’s nice to have some reassurance,” he says. “Now I just want to better myself.”

Photo Credits

David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NHLI/ Getty Images (2); Claus Andersen/Getty Images; Kevin Sousa/NHLI/Getty Images. Design by Drew Lesiuczok.