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Nazem Kadri tries to get a shot away from his knees against the Carolina Hurricanes during Dec. 19, 2017 game at Air Canada Centre.Claus Andersen/The Globe and Mail

If you count back eight years, to former Toronto Maple Leafs president Brian Burke's first NHL entry draft with the team, there are seven players still on the roster who were taken in those drafts from 2009 through 2016.

More than a few times over the years from 2009 to the present, as Burke was eventually replaced by Brendan Shanahan and the emphasis on developing young talent in-house increased, a lot of people would have bet Nazem Kadri would not have been one of those seven players. Kadri knows all about the doubters.

"I knew I could do it," he said recently. "I expected myself to do it. I'm not sure everyone else did."

Kadri can understand why a lot of people didn't think he would stick in the NHL. But it took him a good seven years to see why; seven years spent learning hard lessons about why sheer talent is not enough to keep you in the best hockey league in the world.

For Kadri had a lot going against him in June, 2009, when Burke announced he was the Leafs' first-round pick in the NHL draft, seventh overall. None of it had anything to do with talent, as Kadri was coming off a 78-point season with his hometown London Knights in the OHL, 28 more than his fellow centre and teammate John Tavares, taken first overall in the same draft, could manage.

Kadri's obstacles were about expectations, maturity and the willingness to accept the role team management saw for him in the NHL and to work as hard as possible to adapt to it. Those things have derailed almost as many careers as a lack of talent.

When it comes to expectations it is never an advantage to be a first-round pick of the Maple Leafs, especially in those years when the team was trying to rebuild yet again in the biggest media market in Canada and among the largest fan base. Simply by being a centre and taken seventh overall, Kadri was projected as the No. 1 centre the Leafs desperately needed even before he played a game as a pro.

It does not take much for such talk to cause a swollen head. As the first years of his professional career lurched along, with small signs of promise at the NHL level and an uneven apprenticeship in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, Kadri neglected the work needed not only to achieve the physical conditioning and the skills required in the NHL but the willingness to adapt to the two-way game he never had to play in junior hockey.

"Yeah, work ethic, you could say that," said Kadri's linemate and best friend on the Leafs, Leo Komarov. "But how I see it, you get drafted, you're [with] Toronto, you get a lot of stuff for free and kind of think you're there already.

"But getting drafted is more like you start working. Sidney Crosby and those guys, they work every day and that's why they are so good."

This wasn't all Kadri's fault. The Leafs organization slipped into dysfunction just as he made the team for good in the 2013-14 season. By January of 2015, Shanahan was given permission by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to conduct a scorched-earth rebuild. The rest of the 2014-15 season was a ghastly plod under interim coach Peter Horachek in which the veteran players mostly went through the motions.

There was no excellence around for a young player like Kadri to emulate and the good times off the ice became a little too frequent. The low point came in March, 2015, when he was suspended for three games by Shanahan for being late for a Sunday morning team meeting.

It was literally a wake-up call for Kadri. Shanahan sat him down and made it clear he needed to cut out the off-ice excess if he wanted to be an NHL player. But he also made it clear he thought Kadri could be one of the survivors of the rebuild.

"It was a crossroads in my career and I had to make the right choice," Kadri said. "It was up to me, nobody else, to guide myself in the right direction.

"I had two choices: to figure it out or not figure it out. I told myself I would and I promised my family and friends I would. I think I panned out."

He certainly has but it was not a straight path upward. He had to bend to the wills of Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock who were hired as general manager and head coach, respectively, in the summer of 2015. They did not see Kadri as the scoring successor to Sundin. That would fall to Auston Matthews, who was the draft-pick prize for finishing last in the 2015-16 season. Kadri would be the shutdown centre, assigned to the opposition's top line, but one who could also add some scoring.

Lamoriello and Babcock considered the suspension a serious matter but they also told Kadri he was starting with a clean slate with the new regime. The rest was up to him.

"Deep down, I think he always wanted to be a hockey player at the highest level," Lamoriello said. "Things hadn't gone right, whether it was on the ice or off the ice. This was a chance to put his best foot forward. He deserves all the credit because he accepted exactly what was needed, he understood what mistakes he made. Sometimes that's very difficult to admit.

"He embraced things from, I wouldn't say Day 1, but over a period of time during the first year. He found some trust and felt people were on his side and were looking at the things he did right and not the things he did wrong and took it from there."

At one point during the 2016-17 season, Babcock and Kadri discussed the Frank Selke Trophy, given to the NHL's best defensive forward. Babcock wondered just how serious Kadri was about winning it and was assured he was completely serious.

Kadri always had an edge to his game, so developing a physical style needed to keep players such as Crosby and Tavares from scoring was not a huge leap. By the end of the 2016-17 season Kadri not only earned a reputation as someone who could frustrate star opponents but as someone who could score on them as well. He finished with 32 goals and 61 points, both career highs.

This did not produce a Selke win but it certainly thrust Kadri into the conversation about the award from now on. And at the age of 27, Kadri has lots of years ahead of him to win one.

"I think it was a gradual process," Kadri said when asked if it was a case of the light suddenly switching on. "The string of events led to me changing and trying to be a better person on and off the ice, trying to become more professional. There comes a time when it's the player's choice and it's up to him to make the right one."

Kadri said his parents were a big help during this period. Unlike a lot of hockey parents, Samir and Sue Kadri did not spare the criticism if they felt it was warranted.

"His dad was hard on him and that's good," Komarov said. "Babs [Babcock] came in, and he gave him a lot of advice. There were a lot of people helping. … [Kadri] figured it out."

However, not much in the NHL goes smoothly for players, as Kadri discovered this season. After playing well through October and November, Kadri's scoring dried up in December. While he went into the Christmas break tied for second on the Leafs in goals with Matthews at 13, Kadri has not scored during the entire month of December.

But that is where that healthy ego comes in handy, in a good way. Kadri said shortly before Christmas, after coming up empty again in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, that it may not be fun to be in a scoring funk, but it won't last.

"I'm getting Grade-A chances," he told reporters. "I just need a little puck luck for them to go in. That's just how it works. I've been around long enough to understand it comes with the game."

Defenceman Morgan Rielly says the Maple Leafs need to put in a lot of work to get to where they want to be at the end of the season. As Toronto kicked off training camp on Thursday, forward Auston Matthews added that consistency is key.

The Canadian Press