TORONTO - After getting a look at Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner over the weekend, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock mused that his talented but young players turned the puck over "just for fun."
Toronto coaches of old used to say similar things about Nazem Kadri.
"He had a lot of turnovers, and things he can probably get away with in junior hockey (that) you can't get away with in our league, let alone against a top team in the league," former Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of Kadri after his NHL debut in 2010.
Seven long and sometimes bumpy years later, much has changed.
Kadri, who turns 26 on Thursday, now expects to be the one doing things right. He said recently that the next step in his career was embracing "the whole leadership thing" on a squad that's flooded with youth.
"Just set a good example," Kadri said. "And that's something that I've really tightened up in the last couple years, just understanding how (the league) works, what it means to be in the NHL, what it means to put on an NHL jersey. Just setting that example, being a professional, doing things the right way, not cheating, just things like that."
The Leafs made a big show of faith in Kadri this past summer, signing the former first round pick to a six-year deal worth US$27 million. It was a rapid turnabout from barely one year earlier when team president Brendan Shanahan stepped in front of cameras and microphones and announced a team-imposed suspension for unsavoury off-ice behaviour.
Kadri, playing on a one-year make-or-break deal, responded with his best all-around season.
He more than held his own as Babcock's first option against Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and other top lines, leading the Leafs in scoring while remaining a positive puck possession player. He also won a career-high 49 per cent of his draws.
His role will look similar this year.
"And that's what I want," Kadri said. "I want to thrive in that role of playing against other team's top units, not just keeping them off the scoresheet, but having offensive scoring chances myself."
Kadri was unlucky offensively last year despite his team-leading production.
He fired a career-high 260 shots (12th-most overall), but scored only 17 times for a career-low shooting percentage of 6.5 per cent. Reverting back to prior norms could mean more than 20 goals and perhaps 50-plus points this season, though his production could be limited by the quality of his linemates and power play opportunity.
Even with crummy luck, low-grade offensive wingers (Leo Komarov was his most frequent winger) and tough matchups, Kadri still led the Leafs in even-strength production last year (31 points), a feat he's unlikely to repeat with Matthews, Nylander, Marner (if he sticks with the club) and James van Riemsdyk (injured for much of last year) all on board.
Matthews drastically upgrades a Leafs third line centre spot filled primarily by Nick Spaling and Peter Holland last season. The 19-year-old will rightly draw plenty of opportunity in the offensive zone, potentially resulting in fewer starts there for Kadri and harder minutes as a result.
Toronto's infusion of skilled young talent could also mean a dip in power play opportunity for the London, Ont., native, a reality that might just create space for first-time use on the penalty kill. Coaches, including Babcock, have often talked about using Kadri to kill penalties but haven't done so.
All in all, it's likely that Babcock's dependence on Kadri in tough spots rises even higher this season, an improbable shift from earlier years when he struggled to gain the confidence of Wilson and Randy Carlyle.
"It was all offence and points and goals for me when I first came in," Kadri said, "but then you start to figure out how to become a professional and play the full 200-foot game."
Babcock said Kadri was still a work in progress when asked about his leadership potential late season. Kadri would have to show himself through actions, the coach said.
Even his desire for the role though suggests some kind of growth. And though his profile might suggest otherwise Kadri hasn't actually been around the league that long. He's played just 326 games entering the Leafs' Oct. 12 opener against Ottawa.
"I'm still inching up to my prime and I've still got a ways to go," Kadri said. "I haven't learned everything yet so I'm still wrapping my head around some things, but I'm going to use what I've learned from the past to be able to apply it to the present."