By Larry Wigge
There are rare individuals who never can succeed at the minor league level ... but who can thrive on the man stage in the major leagues.
Nazem Kadri is the enigma were are talking about -- a guy who couldn't do the things at a minor league level, but boy can he for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A center by trade is of Lebanese heritage -- he is the first Muslim drafted by the Maple Leafs. That he grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan only adds to the mix for multi-cultural Toronto.
On draft day in June of 2009, I remember a story about Kadri.
Bryan Murray of the Ottawa Senators, as I remember it, was picking ninth, but he was attempting to trade up so he could get Jared Cowen, a highly touted defenseman who suffered a shoulder tear, which cost most of the season. The Sens, thinking they would miss out on Cowen tried to trade up to Toronto's spot.
Brian Burke was adamant that he had his was not going to trade and his man was Kadri.
"Our scouts think he's creative and explosive," said Burke. "He's intense. They like his physical play even though he's not a big guy."
The Maple Leafs were content to wait as long as it took for Kadri, who became a lightning rod, was called in the media by coach Dallas Eakins -- some actually considered him a bust.
Sometimes when I look at Kadri, you would see character issues -- everyone developing on their own time and sometimes you have to make mistakes and do some things wrong and get criticized to make you the player and the person you become later.
"It was tough on me for a little bit," Kadri admitted. "I really don't think a lot of other people could have been under the scrutiny and under the pressure and have that mental toughness to prevail."
Even this year, during the lockout, Kadri could never get on the same page with Marlies Eakins on the fundamentals, often benching Nazem. While with the Marlies, Nazem put up good numbers: 18 goal, 22 assist in 48 games. BUT nothing like the stats he would put up with the Maple Leafs: 13 goals, 21 assists in 31 games.
Kadri was tied for 10th in NHL scoring, ranking behind such centers as Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Erik Staal and Ryan Getzlaf. He had two goals and six assists in his last three games leading up to March 21.
"Naz works to get the puck back and he out-competes guys to get it," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "He is scoring goals from in tight in tough areas and he is working through checks to score.
"The reason Naz has been so consistent is that he is playing extremely well in the D-zone and he is tough to play against in the little areas. He wins so many one-on-one battles."
Two weeks earlier, following his first career hat trick against the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who coach Kadri in Kitcher of the Ontario Hockey League, remarked: "I'm surprised it took as long as it did. But I'm not surprised it took time. He's not a big guy."
Kadri says one of the reasons he's been able to handle the scrutiny and the criticism is because of Pete DeBoer.
This 6-foot, 188-pound dynamo from London, Ontario, got a quick start to this season, training under fitness guru Gary Roberts, the former NHL star who spends a great deal of his time these days enlightening young athletes about the benefits of proper diet and training. Roberts only works with the most dedicated athletes so that in itself is a good indication of Kadri's determination to take his game to the next level. For Kadri, his mission was to get leaner, turning fat into muscle, and to become more explosive.
"Honest to God, I think in terms of what I am supposed to do on the ice, it's all taken care of," Kadri said. "I know my role and what I am supposed to do when I am on the ice. It’s the off-ice routine that I am really focusing on. I am dedicating myself in terms of having a strict meal plan and working on explosive legs lifts so that my first couple of strides can separate me from everyone else. I'm already a pretty quick and elusive hockey player."
Nazem Kadri has already been nicknamed "Nazeem the Dream" by captian Phaneuf for his flashy play.
"Everyone in our business should take note of this," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "We're all guilty of wanting more and asking too much of our young players. We're all guilty of impatience. And when a player doesn't meet our expectations, we turn to someone else.
"Time was we used to draft Europeans and not even bring them over until they were 22, 23, 24. And they played right away. But we draft these kids at 18 and we're not willing to wait on them. And you see something like this and you realize how wrong you can be."
Kadri started skating when he was two, began playing organized hockey when he was four, and was suiting up for elite level teams when he was six. Kadri's parents are Sam and Sue moved to Canada when he was four from the small town of Kferdenis in Lebanon. Sam opened a successful auto repair shop and Sue watched her 7-year-old son wrecking her hardwood floors by rollerblading in the living room while practising his shot.
"I had Nazem skating at 3," said Sam Kadri, who built a backyard rink. "A lot of it was I was envious of my friends in high school. Hockey is a fabulous game, and I wished I could play it, so that's why I got him started. He played house league at 4 -- you're not supposed to play until you're 5, but I fibbed and started him early."
Fibbed? Yes ... only a little white lie for the good of his son.
Dave Nonis, now the current GM in Toronto is ready to tab Nazem Kadri as The Dream.
"I love the way Naz has played. Everybody does," Nonis said. "I'd love to put the brakes on, 'Here comes 100 points.'
"Naz has done a very good job. He came into the season, I don't think, as prepared as he'd have liked. To his credit, he put a lot of work in with the Marlies early on ... His skill has always been there. He didn't get good overnight. He's been good for a long time. But his professionalism and the way he's handled the pro game in the last month and a half has taken a big step forward."
Kadri is ready to accept he's got a long way to go. But, this year's flight, has been worth watching.
"I think regardless of what league you're playing in, you've got to have that swagger and walk around like you can be the best player," Kadri said. "If you don't, really what's the point?
"I mean you've got to have the confidence in your teammates and yourself to make the plays you want to because, in this league, if you hesitate when you make a play, chances are it's not going to work. You've got to be sure in what you're doing."
And Nazem Kadri is always confident.