TORONTO – If you were sitting in the stands at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night, you might have come away thinking the game offered more proof that Nazem Kadri was flourishing with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Randy Carlyle saw it differently.
“He’s a great young player and he’s got a skill set that separates him from people, but in the second period he goes 1-on-4 and he was the start of the onslaught of turning the puck over,” Carlyle said after a comeback 4-2 win over New Jersey. “Then he had a two-minute shift and he had all those things.”
“Faceoffs are an area that need vast improvement,” Carlyle later noted while responding to another Kadri question.
The Leafs coach didn’t mean any harm with his statements, harsh as they may appear when transcribed on the screen. However, he did highlight an age-old problem that becomes more pronounced in Canadian cities where the NHL team is the subject of wall-to-wall coverage and endless debate:
How do you properly discuss a young player who is showing promise without building him up too much? And how do you keep that player pushing to get better once the outside praise starts rolling in?
It’s clear that key members of the Leafs organization are currently treading lightly on the Kadri topic. Earlier Monday, general manager Dave Nonis indicated that he wanted to put the “breaks” on any premature talk about his potential as a big-time point producer.
And in much the same vein as Carlyle, he noted the need for continued improvement.
“He didn’t get good overnight, he’s been good for a long time,” Nonis said. “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. … But there’s a lot of work still left to do for Naz for him to be the player that he could be and he knows that.”
It’s a fine line for everyone to walk, especially with Kadri leading the surprising Leafs in scoring with 23 points through 23 games. The goal he scored against the Devils was one a player only gets when things are going right — his pass in front deflected off goalie Johan Hedberg and in — but he also seemed to earn more trust from Carlyle than usual in the form of increased minutes.
Kadri came away from the game feeling good about the faceoffs he was sent out to take in the defensive zone, which were a sign to him that he was doing something right. Nothing about what the coach later told reporters was likely to change how the 22-year-old centre viewed his performance.
For if there is one thing that we’ve learned about Kadri since he was taken seventh overall in the 2009 draft, it’s that he can handle the hoopla. A plug from Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner won’t change much for this kid, nor will Monday’s post-game comments from Carlyle.
Interestingly, it was the experience he had during two seasons under former Kitchener Rangers coach Peter DeBoer — now in charge of the Devils — that helped ready him for his time as a pro player.
“I’ve got a bit of tough love in my three years here (in Toronto), but that’s something Pete prepared me for,” Kadri said. “He was never the quiet type. He always let you know exactly how he was feeling good or bad. I think that’s similar to Randy.
“One of the reasons why I’ve been able to handle the scrutiny and handle the criticism is because of Pete.”
Interestingly, it was also DeBoer who was going out of his way to help build Kadri up during the Devils visit to Toronto. The longtime Ontario Hockey League coach clearly wasn’t paying lip service when asked about a player he has been watching for almost a decade now.
“I’ve always been a big fan,” DeBoer said. “He’s been a special player in my eyes for a long time. I think it was just a matter of time. I’m glad he’s put it all together — couldn’t happen to a better kid.
“He’s here (in the NHL) and I think he’s off to the races now.”
In a perfect world, the Leafs would prefer that no one make any such statements about their leading scorer.
Kadri is on a hot run with nine points in his last five games, which included a hat trick on Long Island last Thursday, and no one close to the situation is ready for any bold pronouncements about what that might mean in the big picture.
Even after a game against the Devils that included another two points and a few shining moments, the focus remained on where things need to go rather than where they currently are.
“We want to teach him the right way to play because he’s got a tremendous talent package,” Carlyle said.