TORONTO – Say this about Nazem Kadri, he's gotten the message.
The 21-year-old who arrived at Marlies training camp earlier this fall with less than stellar results on fitness testing, has dug in over the past few weeks and turned a corner with his off-ice commitments.
"He has not just dipped his toe in the water," said head coach Dallas Eakins of Kadri's recent efforts, "he's taken off his clothes and jumped in naked. He is fully ready to try this and he's on a great roll right now."
According to Eakins, Kadri has turned up his commitment levels across the board, from improved nutrition to better practice habits and training scrutiny.
"What happens with some of these guys is they're so skilled that they've never really had to put in hard work," said Eakins. "I think they'll say 'Well I always worked hard' and they did, they worked as hard as they had to, but as you keep progressing and guys get older and they're stronger and they come in from all different parts of the world, suddenly the base of the group is much higher than what you're used to. I think it's taken Naz a little bit of time to get used to this."
Kadri for one, agreed. "It's something I've just got to wrap my head around that the season isn't just for playing hockey," he explained, "it's for maintaining your body strength and everything that comes with it in the gym. I think maybe in previous years the hockey season was just for playing hockey I thought, the offseason was just for working out. Now I'm starting to intertwine them both. I think I'm going to start to get some great results."
Gradually over the course of two-plus seasons in Toronto, Eakins has looked to fine-tune the professional habits of the brash, confident kid from London, Ontario. All along the goal has been simple, spell out plainly what level of dedication and commitment is required to succeed at the game's highest level.
"I want him to commit to himself," said Eakins. "This isn't for me or for our organization or the Toronto Maple Leafs, this is for him. I just want him to bring his commitment up a little bit more with his work ethic, right from his nutrition to his work in the gym to his work ethic in practice and he's made great, great strides from when we first got him, but I want him to take another step."
Refreshingly honest in his assessment at the start of training camp late last month, Eakins wouldn't hide from the poor result of Kadri's fitness testing, specifically a body fat score that was deemed "unacceptable". In the days that followed a detailed plan was constructed with the help of a conditioning consultant, the team's strength coach Mark Fitzgerald and Eakins, all in an effort to improve upon any results that were lacking. "There's no negotiation on it," said Eakins back on the first of October. "It's either you do it or you are in my office, in my bad books."
Not so different from a student slowly grasping the necessary tools and study habits required for success at university, the light has, for the moment, clicked on for Kadri. "He has been excellent for the last three weeks especially," said Eakins, "from his diet to I see him in the gym all the time, I'm getting real positive reports from Mark Fitzgerald, our fitness guy, he's upped his pace in practice. And eventually all of this will just become second nature. He will just be out there working hard, working smart, doing his extra work off the ice and he won't even know it, it'll just be how he does things."
A critical year of development lies ahead for Kadri.
No one will ever question his skill level, but can he translate it toward becoming a dominant player nightly in the American League, one who is noticeably ready for the next level? Time will tell. After five games this season, he has just two assists, but has created more than his share of opportunities, math that will take care of itself if the efforts continue.
"It's something that's not easy to do, especially day in, day out," said Kadri of the newfound commitment, which he says has left him with greater endurance and strength. "But after the first few weeks that I've been doing this it seems like it's getting easier and easier every single day. I'm looking after myself. I know what's at stake here. I just want to make myself the best player possible and that reflects on everybody; the coaching staff to the people who put their necks out on the line for me, I just want to make everyone happy."
Why the Leafs are without an ECHL affiliate
On the second Monday in July, the Reading Royals, formerly the Leafs ECHL affiliate, announced that they had joined ranks with the Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears. That agreement left the Leafs, at the midway point of the summer, without an affiliate to designate prospects to beyond the Marlies.
Toronto is one of five NHL clubs without a relationship with the remaining unaffiliated ECHL teams – Bakersfield, Las Vegas and Alaska – all far from attractive in terms of location and/or travel. Fort Wayne was an option, but agreed with the Ducks organization in late August. For now, the organization has the option of securing soft agreements with select clubs – such as Sam Carrick with the Idaho Steelheads – with injuries and a hopeful end to the NHL lockout likely to clear more space in the future. The Leafs will eventually land a partner for next season, but for now young players such as 2010 second round pick Brad Ross, will have to remain with the Marlies as extras for the time being.