It was deep into the abbreviated season last spring, right near the height of Kadri-mania, and then-Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins was chuckling to himself over all the attention it was generating.
Nazem Kadri – always his most overconfident pupil in the minors even as Eakins tried to thump the defensive deficiencies out of him – was getting top billing with the Toronto Maple Leafs after putting up 39 points in 36 games to start his first full season in the NHL.
He was one of the top scorers in the big leagues at 22 years old and his former coach really wasn’t that surprised.
Eakins always knew Kadri had that ability, even if what was in the headlines and on call-in shows was their run-ins, occasions when the coach wasn’t afraid to tell the media the top prospect was out of shape or in need of further seasoning.
“He is really confident,” Eakins explained at the time. “You want the kid to hear you. As a coach or as an organization, you want the young player to hear you. You’re trying to direct them in the right direction so they can have success. But Naz has this great way about him where you can rip this kid or it can be a really negative meeting and he will walk out and five minutes later he’ll be telling the world and the media how great he feels about his game.
“But that’s part of being an athlete. You’ve got to have a lot of positive self talk and you’ve got to take note of what’s important and take the criticism and the direction and use it in the right way. Naz quickly gets over things. He and I have had a ton of battles and times 10 more encouragement than that.”
On Tuesday night in Edmonton, Eakins’s job for the second time already this season will be to ensure Kadri doesn’t succeed, to use his weaknesses against him and to get the Oilers a much needed win against the Leafs.
It’ll be an interesting dynamic to watch, especially with Kadri now slotted into the first-line centre role for only the second time this season.
It has been a rocky first 13 games for the first year head coach, and the last thing he needs right now is an embarrassing loss at the hands of some of his former players.
The reasons are multitude, but Eakins has had plenty of injury problems, poor goaltending and a thin lineup to contend with, all contributing to the Oilers falling into the Western Conference basement with a nightmare 3-8-2 start.
Now he gets Kadri riding high with the 8-4-0 Leafs as part of a matchup that’s already starting to rehash all of the old headline history, good and bad.
“He wasn’t afraid to give me a swift kick in the behind once in a while,” Kadri told the Toronto Sun on Monday.
At times, that’s what was needed. Kadri may have taken the longer road to get to the NHL than many top prospects these days, but it’s difficult in hindsight to say he did anything but benefit from the time in the minors.
His game is more complete, his personality (maybe) a tiny bit more subdued and his own expectations more reasonable.
“For some guys, it can be a really humbling experience,” said former Leafs and Marlies defenceman Mike Kostka, who is now with the Chicago Blackhawks but spent years watching top prospects like Kadri parade through the AHL circuit. “They have a lot of expectations, then they go down, and they just know that nothing’s given to you. A lot of them come out of junior and they were the guy, the man, and they learn it can be fragile and you might have to go down.
“I think it was a good experience for Naz. It’s become part of the fabric of who he is now.”
Eakins always insisted that was the case, too, and it was never because Kadri lacked high-end talent.
Rather the organization wanted to see him become something more than a low level contributor who was placated by early success.
The talk that Kadri was held in the minors too long, meanwhile, drove the organization crazy.
“I’ve seen it so many times,” Eakins said, back in those Kadri-mania days, all of six months ago. “People say ‘look at this kid, we told you, he should have been here two years ago, he should have been here last year – look at what he can do’ and I just laugh when I see that. Because, listen, that kid has the same name but that’s a different player. That player that you see, that’s not the same player that was there last year and it certainly wasn’t the same player two years ago. There has been a progression here.
“And the person that deserves all the credit for the progression and the development is Naz. It’s always the player. They either figure it out or they don’t.”
The Eakins-Kadri relationship was an interesting one overall, and it wasn’t particularly warm and fuzzy.
On a basic level, after all, they’re very different people.
Eakins’s background is as a blue-collar defenceman who earned every NHL minute he got by spending hundreds of games in the press box and the minors, grinding out a living with hard work and dedication as a former 10th round pick who played more games in the big leagues than most (120).
But Kadri was a highly skilled star right from the beginning, playing on championship teams in London as a peewee and then going in the first round of both the OHL and NHL draft.
And that incredible confidence level that everyone who knows him now speaks to was only supported by and became ingrained because of all that success along the way.
But back in April, when Kadri had exploded and became a national story, Eakins was fielding calls left and right about him and he didn’t pass up an opportunity to heap praise on his former player.
He talked about how much the Marlies missed his presence in games, when Kadri would ignite an otherwise sleepy bench by getting into “a verbal war with three other players” or whacking an opponent with his stick.
He talked about how Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was the prefect no-nonsense mentor to take Kadri to the next level, including how he was working him in with low minutes and against lesser competition last season in order to get his feet wet.
And he talked about how nice it was to have a happy ending to the “trials and tribulations” of Nazem Kadri, something that curiously became a huge story in the city despite the fact that, all told, he was in the minors for only 119 games.
It may not have always been fun or easy, but it worked – and now both are set to square off again at the next level.
“Knowing the kid like I do, I’m happy for his success and I’m just glad he’s a full-time NHL player right now,” Eakins said last spring. “I’ve been asked do I think Naz can keep this [point-a-game pace] up and you know what the answer is? I don’t know. You don’t know. We’ll have to see. But what he’s doing is great. It’s what our organization saw when they drafted him seventh overall. That was his potential.
“But he is so competitive that every night he is going to bring something to that game. When a guy is that competitive and he has that much skill, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the scoresheet, that’s for sure. That’s just the way that goes.”