Maple leaf looks good on Kadri
It isn't quite the maple leaf Nazem Kadri had in mind at the
beginning of the hockey season, but in some ways, it means as much
... perhaps even more.
Instead of wearing blue and white foliage, the Leafs' top draft pick of 2009 is donning the red and white variety while representing Canada at the world junior championship, starting Saturday in Saskatoon against Latvia.
Failing to crack the Leaf lineup was a disappointment, Kadri admits, but he says brooding over the fact is not his style.
"I can't live in the past, that happened a while ago," said Kadri in a phone interview Tuesday after a practice in Calgary. "My main focus right now is winning a gold medal.
"Every kid grows up watching this tournament. ... I was one of those kids. To be able to play in it finally and put that crest on your chest definitely means a lot."
Kadri was the talk of Leaf training camp, identified by coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke as a star of the future. But Kadri, selected seventh overall in the NHL entry draft, was determined to make the Leafs this season and put on a show.
If he wasn't the best Leaf on the ice in exhibition games, he was certainly among them. But Wilson wanted Kadri to return to junior, in part to add muscle, in part to play a lot of minutes and learn how to dominate a game. Kadri was initially devastated and got off to a slow start with the London Knights.
"I started off the season a little slow because I was disappointed coming back, but I've picked it up recently," said Kadri.
He has been playing better. Kadri leads the Knights — second in the Midwest Division — in scoring with 20 goals and 18 assists in 28 games, adding a physical element to his play with 62 penalty minutes. He had 25 goals and 53 assists in 56 games last year.
Being named to Team Canada — where he's expected to center the top power-play unit — is a testament to his talent and the season he is having. On Sunday, Kadri had three assists in a 6-2 exhibition win over Sweden.
"He's an offensive player who's going to get a chance to play," said Team Canada assistant coach Dave Cameron. "But at the same time, we're not going to turn it into a skill show, either. That's the message we're giving our whole team.
"We want to play four lines, we want 40-second shifts. We want guys going to the net, we want guys making good decisions with the puck. If that means (dumping) it in, then we have to dump it in.
"He's got the ability, he's a power-play guy and he's an offensive guy."
While all of Canada's eyes will be glued on these teenagers through the New Year tournament, Leaf brass - and Leaf fans - will be keeping a close watch on Kadri, perhaps even imagining him dishing the puck to Phil Kessel one day.
"He has to play hard, he's got to play a real strong two-way game," said Dave Morrison, the Leafs' director of amateur scouting. "I know for Canada that's what you have to do if you're going to play.
"He's prepared himself to do that. He's got that creativity and skill. By the end of the tournament he'll have shown what he's capable of. He understands it's more important to be a good team player.
"These are the tournaments you have to be the ultimate team player every time you're on the ice. He really does understand that."
Kadri acknowledges that the team is feeling "tons" of pressure in its pursuit of the gold medal. It would be a sixth in a row for Canada at the tournament. "It's going to be easier said than done," said Kadri.
Cameron said Kadri and his teammates have what it takes to get the job done.
"There's always pressure when you get to this level of elite competition," said Cameron. "These guys have been at under-17s and under-18s.
"They are in the pressure business. They're elite guys who are looking to turn up to the pro level. It's just another step in the ladder for them."