Nazem Kadri on time with Leafs: ‘I wouldn’t change that experience for anything’

Nazem Kadri knew for a while he might get caught in the trade winds swirling around the salary cap-squeezed Maple Leafs.

That doesn’t make his departure any easier.

The veteran centre was dealt by Toronto to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night in a four-player deal that saw defenceman Tyson Barrie go the other way.

“It’s tough,” Kadri said on a conference call Tuesday. ”Toronto’s been home. I’ve experienced a lot of great experiences and some not so good, and battled a lot of adversity.

“The fans have been amazing to me … it’s hard.”

The 28-year-old said what he’s most proud of when reflecting on his decade with the Leafs is how the team grew from bottom-feeder to contender.

“Just watching the evolution, it was amazing,” he said. ”I was there when we were one of the worst teams in the league. To transition to one of the best, it’s been a long process. “

Kadri’s disappointment at leaving the franchise that drafted him seventh overall in 2009, nurtured him during tough times, and one he helped get back to respectability and beyond shouldn’t be taken as a slight against his new team.

Quite the opposite.

“It wasn’t really my first choice,” he said of being traded. ”But at the end of the day the Colorado Avalanche are going to be contenders for many, many years to come.

“That makes this a lot easier.”

He might look back fondly now, but things weren’t always rosy for Kadri in Toronto. He was suspended by the team for missing a meeting back in 2015, and has been banned by the league five times for a total of 19 games since 2013 for various infractions related to contacting an opponent’s head.

He was suspended for eight of the Leafs’ last 14 playoff games for indiscretions against the Boston Bruins the last two springs alone, including having to sit out the final five contests of the teams’ 2019 post-season matchup.

Toronto lost both series in seven games, and while Kadri could have made a difference, especially in the most recent series, he doesn’t believe discipline issues led to the trade.

“I know for a fact that didn’t have anything to do with it,” Kadri said. “They know I’m a heart-and-soul guy, and I’d do anything for my teammates.

“That was obviously shown — sometimes not necessarily in the best way — but my head and my heart were always in the right place.”

The deal with the Avalanche, which also saw defenceman Calle Rosen and Toronto’s third-round pick in 2020 head to Colorado for forward Alex Kerfoot and a sixth-round selection next June, was the type of transaction that had been on Kadri’s radar for about a week.

His team-friendly contract with a US$4.5-million cap hit for the next three seasons and Toronto’s need to create salary space to sign some of its younger players, including star restricted free agent Mitch Marner, made him a prime target to be moved.

“Hard decisions have to be made,” Kadri said. ”This was certainly one of them.”

The Avalanche, who are also picking up half the average annual value of the final year of Barrie’s contract (US$5.5 million) before he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, boast an impressive young core coming off a trip to the second round of the playoffs.

Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen star up front for a club that also has a skilled defence that should soon be led by Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

“Colorado was an attractive team for me,” Kadri said. ”We can be contenders for a long time.”

Kadri leaves Toronto with 161 goals and 357 points in 561 regular-season games. He registered back-to-back 32-goal seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18, including 12 each on the power play, but saw his offensive role reduced when the Leafs signed John Tavares in free agency last summer.

That bumped Kadri into a third-line role behind Tavares and Auston Matthews, and saw him put up his lowest totals in a full season (16 goals, 44 points in 73 games).

The London, Ont., native is convinced he can get back to the 30-goal mark, and maybe even beyond, with a team that has relied heavily on MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen.

“Hitting the 30-goal mark back-to-back times, that’s pretty tough to do in the NHL,” Kadri said. ”(I’m) feeling the best I ever have working for redemption next season.”

One of the first things Kadri did after learning of the trade was check when he’ll make his first trip to Scotiabank Arena.

“That’ll certainly be an emotional time,” he said of Colorado’s visit on Dec. 4. ”It’ll be bittersweet.”

But what won’t be is the feeling Kadri will continue to have for Toronto and its fans.

“I love the city,” he said. ”It can be a tough place to play sometimes, but I wouldn’t change that experience for anything.

“Forever grateful and happy to get the opportunity, but now I’m moving on and I feel like the best years are ahead.”

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