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Nazem Kadri earns praise from Marlies head coach

Nazem Kadri has struggled to earn a fulltime roster spot with the Leafs (Canadian Press)Nazem Kadri is making progress with the Toronto Marlies.

About a month after being scrutinized by Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins on the first day of training camp for his poor fitness levels and eating habits, Kadri is now fielding compliments from the baby Leafs bench boss.

"He has been excellent over here for the last three weeks to a month, kind of since training camp," Eakins said in a media scrum Wednesday. "I want him to commit to himself. This isn't for me, our organization or for the Toronto Maple Leafs, this is for him and I just want him to bring his commitment up a little bit more with his work ethic, right from his nutrition to his work in the gym to his work ethic in practice, and he's made great strides."

It's been a bumpy, up-and-down road for the 22-year-old Kadri thus far in his NHL career. He's played nearly double the amount of AHL games (97) compared to ones in the in the NHL (51), has faced plenty of criticism from his coaches, fans and the media, and while every player selected above him in the 2009 NHL draft has made a name for himself in the NHL, Kadri is still struggling to find his spot.

This season with the Marlies is a huge opportunity for him to prove himself. With the owners and players union still trying to nail down a new collective bargaining agreement and get NHL hockey going again, many eyes -- influential eyes -- especially in Toronto are on the Marlies and obviously Kadri more specifically.

"I think it's taken Naz a little time to get used to this," Eakins said. "But I can say this, especially for the last three weeks, he has not just dipped his toe in the water, he's taken off his clothes and jumped in naked. He is fully ready to try this and he's on a great role right now.

And on top of having many people watching, Kadri and all of the Marlies have the unusual opportunity to prove themselves against some full-fledged NHL players. And yes, the Oklahoma City Barons -- though the most talked about AHL team -- aren't the only ones with skilled, young talent taking the ice during the lockout. Cody Hodgson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zack Kassian, Ryan Johansen, Adam Henrique and Jared Cowen are all NHL calibre players suiting up in the AHL while the lockout war wages on.

And Kadri seems to understand the importance of this season in the American League. He told the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran on Wednesday:

"The season isn't just for playing hockey, it's for maintaining your body strength and everything that comes with it in the gym. Maybe in previous years, I thought the hockey season was just for hockey and the off-season was just for working out. Now I'm starting to intertwine them both.

"Now I'm thinking I'm going to get better results. I feel a lot better. Once pucks start going in the net for me, I think the results are going to come."

His successful play with the Marlies this season may not result in ice time in the NHL, but that would be for reasons that are out of Kadri's and every players control. But a promotion to the big club can't be what motivates him right now. He needs to look at the implications this season could have further down the road because if he can't be a top AHL player now, what does that say about his NHL future?

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