TORONTO – Nazem Kadri needed no introductions.
The majority of young players go virtually unnoticed by opposition in their second NHL game, but that wasn’t the case for the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie. In fact, some of the Vancouver Canucks went out of their way to poke fun at him Saturday after he botched a scoring chance in the third period.
“A couple of them chirped me when the puck hopped over my stick there on that three-on-one,” Kadri said Monday.
Naturally, he had a comeback: “They’re lucky I didn’t get it off because I had a good feeling about that one.”
So it goes for the supremely confident 20-year-old forward, who has occupied the spotlight since being selected seventh overall by the Maple Leafs in 2009.
Outside of perhaps No. 1 pick Taylor Hall, there isn’t another rookie player in the league who has been as widely discussed. Never mind that he was only called up from the American Hockey League last week to try and provide an offensive spark for the struggling Maple Leafs.
Kadri will play his third NHL game against Nashville on Tuesday and is still looking to make an impact on the scoresheet. Despite his outward confidence, he does share some traits in common with other first-year players.
“The nerves are always going to be there,” said Kadri. “I think throughout the course of the game, that’s when I’ll start to feel a lot more comfortable. I’ve just got to get my feet wet for the first couple shifts and feel things out a bit.
“I’m still not a vet in this league, it’s still pretty new to me.”
One thing GM Brian Burke made clear when he called up Kadri is that the team wasn’t looking for him to be a “saviour.” The fact he even had to make such a statement demonstrates just how much attention he’s received.
Part of it stems from the fact Kadri established himself as a gifted offensive player in junior—something the Leafs are sorely lacking as they sit 28th in goals per game. Another factor likely comes from the organization’s inability to draft and develop star players over the years. Will Kadri break the mould?
Only time will truly tell. He did manage to generate a couple scoring chances against the Canucks without being a defensive liability—precisely what he needs to do to remain with the big club.
However, simply focusing on the task at hand isn’t always as easy as it seems. Teammate Colby Armstrong, who is currently sidelined with a hand injury, says he was constantly concerned about whether he’d be sent back to the AHL after he first broke into the NHL with Pittsburgh in 2005.
“I remember my first few games—at least 10 anyways—getting worried about getting sent down,” said Armstrong. “There’s a lot of things going through your head. Knowing if you’re doing the right thing or not, or how you’re fitting in, or what they think of you.
“There’s a lot going through a young guy’s head when he’s trying to break in. It’s tough.”
There are a number of young players on the team’s roster. Coach Ron Wilson thinks they’ve maintained a good attitude even though the Leafs have just one win in 12 games, but feels like some of them might be trying to force the issue.
“We press a little bit because some of the guys haven’t been around long enough to understand that’s the nature of the game—that you’re going to go four, five, six games without scoring a goal just as likely as you are to have a streak where you do,” said Wilson. “That’s kind of where it hurts us.”
As for Kadri, he’s fully aware he’s been the subject of endless discussion from fans and media alike.
But for the time being he’s vowing not to let his focus drift from what goes on in inside the Maple Leafs dressing room.
“All that really matters is what my teammates, my coach and what I think,” said Kadri. “As long as I’m keeping them happy it’s all good with me. I think I’m doing the right things out there.
“Yeah, there’s some pressure but that’s (not) in the back of my head when I’m playing.”