TORONTO - It was about 29 degrees on that stinging November day in Cedar Park, Texas. The Marlies were in town to face the Texas Stars at the 6,800 seat Cedar Park Arena with one very notable absence in their lineup. Boasting no goals and a scant three assists after nine games, Nazem Kadri had been scratched.
"I'm not the type of player to cry about it or blame anybody else," Kadri recalled of the incident late in the 2012 calendar. "I took it upon myself and came out the next game and had the best game of my year so far.
"Really from there I didn't look back."
In rather stunning and punctuating fashion, Kadri has gone from being a very questionable part of the Leafs' future - a frustrating and often confounding talent - to a core piece of the puzzle moving forward. The 22-year-old has assumed the unlikely lead in team scoring after 20 games, totaling five goals, 12 assists and 17 points.
"I've been through a lot," he conceded of his Toronto tenure, which began at the 2009 NHL Draft in Montreal. "My three years here I've definitely grown as a hockey player and as a person as well. I've learned how to deal with a lot of different scenarios. It was tough on me for a little bit, but now that I'm starting to have some success and the team is starting to have some success, it definitely seems like it's paying off."
Of a winding road of development that included varied twists, turns, and media-driven controversies, Kadri concedes that "[t]here's a lot of different things I could maybe do differently or not like I did." He notes that his eating habits - a subject of much intrigue at Marlies training camp - could have been better. But maybe more interesting is his response when questioned on what advice he'd offer the 19-year-old who made his NHL debut in February 2010. "Just to be more simple," the elder Kadri advised. "Every shift you don't have to go out there and wow somebody and make fans jump out of their seats. Some shifts you've got to stick with the program and make the easy plays because in the long run it's going to get you more opportunity."
And that is perhaps the picture of evolution when it comes to Kadri. He can still 'wow somebody' as he did in Philadelphia on Monday evening, lofting a delicate back-hand pass to Nik Kulemin for the second Toronto goal in a 4-2 win, the first of his two assists. But at the patient urging of Eakins for three years with the Marlies and now Randy Carlyle with the Leafs, those dazzling arrays of creativity are being balanced (at times) with the 'safe and easy play'.
"That's one of the things that I've really worked on, especially with Dallas," Kadri said.
"There's certain times where I'm allowed to make plays and I have the free will to make plays, but there's other times where you've got to get the puck in deep, you've got to play simple. Those are just like [the] last couple minutes in a period or in a game where you don't really want to take a chance, you just make the safe and easy play."
"It's the choice of when he tries to make some of those razzle-dazzle plays are the things that are going to upset you," Carlyle said, noting early turnovers in Kadri's game after the win against the Flyers. "But on the other hand when he makes the plays to provide offence I don't think you can ever take that away from a creative player.
"I think the one thing about the maturity of a young player like Nazzie is when and where and how often you try the high-risk, high-reward. There's certain areas of the ice you accept it and certain areas that you don't. That's the learning curve that's going to continue to be put in place for him."
Kadri scored one goal and added two assists the night after he was scratched in Texas, totaling eight goals and 23 points over what could prove to be his final 18 games in the American Hockey League. He snatched a job with the Leafs at training camp and is among the biggest surprises so far this season. There were serious doubts as to whether he could (and would) evolve into an effective player for the Leafs, especially one who could succeed within the microscope of Toronto. He is gradually erasing those questions with his performance this season. With an almost unmatched flair and creativity, some grit and fire mixed in, Kadri (a restricted free agent this summer) is forcing his name into the group of core young players - Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk among them - that would seem to constitute the future in Toronto.
He is changing the conversation from hype into reality.
"I really don't think a lot of other people could've been under the scrutiny and under the pressure and still be able to have that mental toughness to prevail," he concluded. "But that's just one of the many things I've been through."