Expectations will follow you around wherever you go. There's no shaking a label once it's been slapped on you and spread as fact from ear to ear. This happens a lot in professional sport, in everyday life, to kids and adults, to animals; it's part of living. A rabid dog will always be a rabid dog, there's no changing the stigma associated with aggression. The dog will never be friendly or looked at the same again. A first-round pick will always carry the weight of a team looking into the future for "the next one." He will never reach his potential until he does the impossible, the unthinkable. Those expectations are dangerous, but the norm in professional sport. It's the world Nazem Kadri has been living in since he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the world he's trying to navigate as he flirts with personal success. He's not the first and he won't be the last.
"He's a great conversation in Toronto," former Toronto Marlies and Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins told theFan590 on Tim and Sid last Tuesday afternoon. "He's the first-round pick and you're a Toronto Maple Leaf. He's going to be a conversation piece forever." Forever is a long time, Kadri doesn't have forever to impress as his window closes.
If one thing was learned from Evander Kane being shipped out of Winnipeg, it was expecting a kid to be a professional without teaching him how is a huge mistake. You've given a young man more money than he's ever seen, more attention than he's ever had, and labelled him as the face of your franchise. He was given a suit of armour from the time he was drafted that excused him from being a professional. He was the "it" the (Thrashers) Jets were looking for and he knew stretching the boundaries of which he was asked to stay would be easy. Kane knew nothing but success coming from the Vancouver Giants. He faced adversity during a tough transition to the NHL level and didn't get the support he needed. After all, he was only 18.
Kadri is on a similar but different path. He played a season with John Tavares on the London Knights before he was drafted by the New York Islanders. He knew he would have to work hard to make the Maple Leafs' team in his draft year (2009) considering his size. He proceeded to score 93 points in 56 games in his last season with the Knights. Kadri grew up in London and always dreamed of playing in the NHL. He wanted to be part of the team, he already had the extra motivation to make it. Still, the adversity he faced left him in a series of moves between the Marlies and Maple Leafs for three seasons. It's common to bounce around, but for a first-round pick years before the growing worry was he was behind in development. He had the skill, the drive, and the desire to play for a team that said time and time again he was too small, he needed to gain weight. No season was good enough for the franchise.
It became clear there was an underlying issue with Kadri and the Maple Leafs. He had his most successful NHL season yet scoring 50 points in 78 games, predominantly on the third line, and still was not used in a high-skill role. He is a small, highly skilled player and is not being used in a way that will play to his strengths. Instead of building on the game he was drafted for, he was asked to grind it out on the bottom two lines. He was asked to change his game to stay on the team and then criticized for not putting up numbers from his days as a London Knight. The transition from junior to NHL is hard enough, but being asked to play an entirely different role is near-impossible as a young player.
Two weeks ago Kadri arrived late to a team meeting and was benched for three games due to the personal error. For a team who lost seven of their last ten games prior to the "uncharacteristic mistake" Kadri made, it seemed like an unnecessary punishment. Days later Kadri told members of the media he was humiliated by the situation and apologized to teammates and coaches after missing the meeting. That, to me, doesn't seem like a kid who has issues with professionalism and respect, it seems like a young man who made an honest mistake and is taking responsibility for it.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan took things a step further by speaking to the media. He announced Kadri would be out two more games on top of the first for being 15 minutes late for the meeting after daylight savings time change. "His teammates like him. We expect a certain level of professionalism. It's time for him to start making better decisions. There's a history here," Shanahan said. According to Dallas Eakins, there wasn't a history and in all his time coaching Kadri, he had nothing but encouraging things to say about one of his former players. "Naz was always on time... He had normal growing pains of any player... He's one of the most competitive players I've ever coached."
The players echoed Eakins' statement explaining they respected Kadri for the way he handled himself and is taking the punishment in stride. He's learning from his mistake and will move on a better player. If the teammates don't have a problem with what happened and the coaches accepted his apology, why three games? It seems like a waste of a developmental opportunity to sit a player you're waiting on to develop further. It's a waste of NHL level games and tough love for a kid who is trying to juggle being a skilled top-line centre and playing on the third line to stay on the team. It's hard to be a professional when your role changes day-to-day. It's hard to be a professional when expectations continue to pile up before you have a chance to recognize them. Being late to a meeting is not acceptable, but it doesn't warrant public shaming.
There are many teams that would love to take Kadri off the Maple Leafs' hands if he's too much of a nuisance for them. He's a highly skilled player who still hasn't reached his full potential. If he needs to be a professional, he needs to be treated like one. He needs the opportunity - for longer than a few select games - to show what he can do on the top line with Phil Kessel. Give the two of them a chance to gel because you didn't draft Kadri to centre your third line, you drafted him to centre your first.