It was supposed to be the season that Nazem Kadri made his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs and never looked back. Instead, it turned out to be a season of ups and downs that the 20-year-old from London, Ontario will never forget.
Nor should he.
After a preseason for the Leafs that was all about Kadri, shockwaves were sent when, for the second straight year, the Leafs' 2009 first-round pick didn't make the big club right off the bat. The media jumped down the kid's throat, and the criticism was unlike anything a rookie in this town has seen, maybe ever.
Frankly, it looked like it couldn't have gone any worse. Instead of skating in front of buzzing Leafs fans on opening night in the NHL, he was sent back to the AHL to improve, and the questions of how good he really was weren't just being whispered—it was a full on choir.
The cocky-but-confdent Kadri was alone on an island, with not a whole lot of support, or at least that's how it seemed at the time.
It got worse when he started the year with the Toronto Marlies in a major slump. Many believed his hopes had been dashed, his confidence crushed, and his future with the Leafs a long, long way away. To be perfectly honest, it was a drastic overreaction by the entire city—gee, that never happens—but the way it was painted to look, Kadri was in for a terrible year in Toronto.
It didn't help that his coach and GM publicly criticized his play, his work ethic and his preparation to play in the league—or at least that's how it seemed at the time.
So Kadri slugged it out in the AHL for a month, until he got the call every player dreams about—the call-up to the NHL. He stepped into the Leafs lineup on Nov. 11, 2010 to make his season debut. Suddenly he was back in the spotlight, but this time expectations weren't as high, and people seemed more inclined to see how long his stay would last rather than how much he would impact the team.
To put it lightly, it didn't go well—not for him or the Leafs—or at least that's how it seemed at the time.
He played in 17 games for the Leafs, but Kadri made it onto the scoresheet just five of the games, tallying six assists and no goals. He was sent down to the Marlies once again just before the new year, once again with questions hanging over his head, as he clearly wasn't ready for a starting role with the Buds.
It didn't help his cause that almost immediately after his departure the Leafs started on an incredible second-half run thanks to another rookie who entered the fray almost the exact opposite way as Kadri did, or at least tried to. James Reimer filled in between the pipes as a rookie, drafted in the fourth round, only playing because there was no one else to, and with essentially zero expectations.
He went on to be the Leafs' MVP of the season—something you would have expected Kadri to do, if it were to be any rookie.
But then something funny happened. After the beginning of the season began in disappointment and criticism, then struggles in the AHL, followed up by a dreadful appearance with the Leafs, Kadri got one more chance to show what he'd learned throughout the year.
He came back up into the Leafs lineup amidst their frantic push for the playoffs, but this time it was all different. People didn't refer to Kadri as the saviour for the Leafs. He wasn't expected to suddenly step in and score 30 goals anymore. With the Leafs now playing so well, expectations were that he'd come in and play more of a grinding role, not up on the first line as a scorer.
It was almost like the city of Toronto had learned how to handle the situation better, and then it was Kadri's turn to show he had done the same. And would you believe it, he had.
Within his first nine games back into the lineup, Kadri had the first three goals of his NHL career—and they weren't highlight-reel dekes finishing off in style, but grinding, lucky-bounce goals that you get with hard work rather than skill. He looked like a different player, one who knew it wasn't his skill that was going to win him a permanent job, but his work ethic and awareness of the ice when he didn't have the puck.
He played the last 12 games of the season mostly on the third line, but had six points in that time. His game had changed, he was focusing on the things that helped the team, rather than the things that got him goals—and it worked.
It took almost a full season of people telling him he couldn't do it to realize that, yes, in fact, he could. He just needed to go about it a different way. Rarely do rookies step into the NHL and become stars right away. They all have their struggles, and Kadri's were made look worse thanks to a hockey-mad city that never gave the kid a break.
He started the year as a cocky-but-confident kid who thought he could score his way into stardom. He finished the year as just a confident kid who knew what it actually took to be a star in this league—you have to work at it. Nothing is just handed to you.
Everything that went wrong during the year was a stepping stone to where he ended up at the end of the year. Kadri had to learn the hard way, which is exactly how every rookie learns—just not in the fishbowl that is Toronto.
It was all bad then, but that's just how it seemed at the time.
It was supposed to be the season that Nazem Kadri made his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and never looked back. Instead, it turned out to be the season that, in looking back, Kadri learned exactly what it takes to be an NHL player.