TORONTO – It wasn't so long ago that Nazem Kadri played the role of highly hyped prospect trying to crack the Maple Leafs roster.
Kadri was electric in his first NHL training camp in the fall of 2009, a flashy performer who wowed with an array of theatrics on the ice. Though he was quickly returned to juniors with the London Knights when camp concluded, Kadri would, over the course of the next two seasons and even beyond, live in the spotlight associated with a super-touted top-10 pick in the city of Toronto.
Due to play in his first NHL game on Saturday, 19-year-old Morgan Rielly now finds himself occupying similar skates. Reflecting back on an experience that was not without its share of drama and outside noise, Kadri offers the following words of wisdom.
"Just worry about the team and yourself and what you have to do," he counseled Rielly in conversation with the Leaf Report on Friday afternoon. "I think that's when you start steering yourself sideways when you start listening to what everyone else has to say outside the rink, what everyone else expects of you, what this person thinks you're going to do. That's really just distractions he doesn't need right now."
Just as it was with Kadri, the debate has been ongoing internally as to what's best for Rielly at this moment and over the long-term for his development, a season in the NHL or a trip back to junior in Moose Jaw.
When training camp concluded last month, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle theorized that to say Rielly was "unequivocally" ready to play in the NHL "is a tough question to ask and a tougher question to answer at this point". In trying to further that assessment, he and the Leafs opted to keep their promising defender when the regular season began earlier this week, the prospect of a 9-game audition on the table in October.
Then under the leadership of the Brian Burke and Ron Wilson, Kadri didn't garner such a look, the flaws in his dazzling game too difficult to ignore. Outside noise in the city was rampant in the days, months and years that followed, a chorus of voices debating how the club was handling the progression of his development.
Even Kadri seemed to infer last winter that he was held back by Wilson, who was replaced by Carlyle in March of 2012.
"It was tough for me because I did everything I could and thought I put myself in a pretty good position in order to help the team that year," Kadri said of his first training camp, during which he dazzled with three goals and five points in six games.. "Obviously I had a few flaws defensively, but I thought my offensive production might be able to outweigh that and maybe the coaching staff could see through that.
"They decided to send me down and it wasn't a bad thing," he reflected. "I went back and developed pretty well and standing here a couple years later I'm glad it happened." The patient approach – which saw him bounce between the Leafs and Marlies – was eventually rewarded. The now 22-year-old centre was a standout for the better part of 2013, ending the year with 44 points in 48 games.
Jake Gardiner was a different case, but also suitably hyped when he was pried from Anaheim in the Joffrey Lupul-Francois Beauchemin swap. He arrived at training camp in the fall of 2011 as a long-shot to crack the Leafs roster, but wowed the organization as a 21-year-old and stormed his way to all-rookie team honours.
Handling the pressure associated with being the next big thing, Gardiner – still finding his place in his third NHL season – said expectations in his own mind were always held in check.
"He seems like a pretty relaxed kid," Gardiner told the Leaf Report of Rielly, "and that's how I went into it too.
"I wasn't expected to make the team right away so I don't think I felt much pressure. I just kind of rolled with it once I started playing well and kept going."
"There is a lot of expectation," he continued, "but he's still young so I don't think there's too much pressure on him."
Rielly sat in the press-box for the opening two games of the regular season, but with Mark Fraser sidelined for up to a month with a left knee injury, an opportunity opened for him to get his first look against the Senators in the Leafs home opener on Saturday.
The clock will starting ticking on his audition – one year of his entry-level contract will be burned after 9 games. What looms for the organization is an opportunity to assess whether he is, in fact, ready to play in the NHL as a teenager. Though they will likely exercise the utmost patience with their top young asset, the Leafs do believe his game could translate right away, Rielly's cerebral nature and easy flow on skates among his more prominent traits.
"He plays the game with his head and his legs and his hands," Carlyle said of Rielly ahead of the Saturday tilt, his Leafs sitting a perfect 2-0-0 to start the season. "He's got all three assets that separate him from other people in his age-group.
"He's a strong puck-mover, he can get the puck through from the point on the power-play, he's got great wheels to get up and down the ice, he's smart in his reads so I don't know what more I can say that doesn't put an exclamation point on the type of player he is and what he can be."
As to the expectations of his debut?
"Just go out and play," Gardiner advised, "do your thing."