Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri vows change: ‘This isn’t going to happen again’

Mike Babcock talks about the Maple Leafs' need for added depth.

TORONTO – Flashing at the top of Nazem Kadri’s Twitter timeline is a promotional clip for a CBC episode of Inside an Athlete’s Head featuring Nazem Kadri.

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward pinned the video there between Game 1 of his club’s freshest series loss in Boston — after he’d set up linemate William Nylander with a brilliant, gutsy long-bomb tape-to-tape breakaway pass through a four-man labyrinth of Bruins — and Game 2, in which he scored a clutch goal, felt wronged by some combination of the officials and Jake DeBrusk, and committed an act so boneheaded, it ended his season five games early and, quite possibly, shaved weeks off the Leafs’ playoff lives.

"I love it," Kadri enthuses in the clip. "I love being hated. I don’t want to go into your building and you like me. The only place I need to be liked is Toronto."

Which is why the past 12 days have been so agonizing for the longest-tenured, shortest-tempered Maple Leaf. Because when it comes to Toronto reciprocating Kadri’s love, well, maybe the city needs a little break to re-evaluate the relationship.

General manager Kyle Dubas, who inherited Kadri’s contract, acknowledged at Thursday’s exit meetings that the third-line centre brings that spicy, feisty element his roster lacks in abundance.

"Yes, he likes to defend his teammates and he plays very hard and things of that nature, but we need him to be available," Dubas said.

"If he continues with that sort of behaviour, the suspensions are not going to decrease. He needs to find that balance between playing extremely hard and defending his teammates and being available to the group."

Since John Tavares’ July 1 decision, countless columns and radio hours were devoted to the Maple Leafs’ depth up the middle. How many other teams could boast of a third-line pivot like Kadri, who was coming in hot after the back-to-back 32-goal campaigns and was embracing defence with such zest that he’d publicly proclaimed a goal to one day enter the Selke chatter?

But then, again under the pretense of defending a teammate (in this case, Hall of Fame–bound den father Patrick Marleau), Kadri cross-checks DeBrusk in the head, removes himself for five games and must spend a speculation-rich summer knowing he might have been the difference.

Kadri’s coach, Mike Babcock, brought him up unprompted in the moments after another Game 7 defeat, wondering if a more disciplined Kadri would have given him flexibility to put William Nylander in better situations to score.

On Thursday, knowing Kadri has taken himself out of eight of the Leafs’ past 14 playoff games, Babcock was asked point-blank if he can trust the player going forward?

"You sit through and watch your teammates go to battle, and you know you might be the tilt in the series and the depth we were counting on. You didn’t intend to cross the line. You were trying to stand up for a teammate, but it went bad on you," Babcock said.

"What impacts it more is back-to-back years. It’s hard."

Usually blessed with a level of self-confidence so high he could run for office, Kadri wore the stress and regret of an entire roster on his face as he cleaned out his locker.

"Brutal," Kadri said. "I’ve never been so anxious and stressed out in my life than to watch these games here.

"Sometimes maybe I just think a little too much with my heart as opposed to my head. That’s something I’m going to fix, and I can assure this isn’t going to happen again.

"I felt I was just starting to play my best hockey in that series. I really was planning on bringing it, on being a difference, on being that X factor."

Breaking down the forensics now feels moot, but for what it’s worth, Kadri said he tried to cross-check DeBrusk in the arm, that his stick connected higher than expected, and that if DeBrusk’s face was truly his intended target, he would’ve done substantial damage. (DeBrusk said he underwent "a couple tests" but never missed a game.)

Kadri owned his mistake but stood by his loyalty.

He also says he tried in vain to initiate a fight with DeBrusk and attributes his cross-check to DeBrusk checking Marleau into the rounded glass near the benches. But Marleau makes note of DeBrusk’s knee-on-knee collision with Kadri and the unjust coincidental minors prior to that.

"Emotions run high come playoff time," Marleau said. "It’s too bad we lost him for the series. It changes some chemistry. It changes the continuity a bit."

October to October, simple math dictates that the Leafs’ continuity will be in for a jolt. Even if his suspension history wasn’t flirting with Raffi Torres/Tom Wilson territory, Kadri was destined to be part of the conversation as Dubas puzzles together his pricy forward group.

The 28-year-old has three more seasons remaining on a cap-friendly, front-loaded deal that carries a $4.5 million annual hit.

Making his paperwork even more movable: In actual salary, Kadri needs "only" to be paid $4 million in the final two seasons.

Because the Leafs are scheduled to pay him a $2 million signing bonus on July 1, cash-conscious suitors may wish to wait to July 2 to make a deal. The player does, however, have a clause that kicked in this season, allowing him to submit a 10-team no-trade list to Dubas.

How concerned is Kadri, drafted to his hometown team 10 years ago this June, that his future in Toronto is now in jeopardy?

"I’m not concerned at all," Kadri said. "This staff and this organization know what I do for my teammates. I obviously crossed the line and don’t want that to happen again, but there’s certain things I can do to fix the situation."

Those "things," Kadri says, are personal. And Dubas says the club will help him with his character challenges.

"There’s a plan in place for when I feel the need to do something like that to be able to take a step back and relax," Kadri said.

"Usually I don’t think about consequences ahead of time, and that’s something I’m becoming much more aware of as this happens. I put my teammates first, it may not seem that way from outside looking in, but these guys all know I’d do anything for them.

"I’d much rather have someone on my team that cares too much than too little."

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