Kadri's future, Marner's contract top of mind as Leafs reflect on early playoff exit
Despite disappointment, Babcock believes that team is moving in right direction
Nazem Kadri insists the Maple Leafs can trust him to keep his cool moving forward.
Whether or not Toronto management truly believes the hot-headed centre remains to be seen.
Kadri's future with the Leafs was one of a number of talking points as players went through exit meetings and spoke with the media for a final time following the team's seven-game defeat to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
Toronto had to do without Kadri for the balance of a series with razor-thin margins after he cross-checked Jake DeBrusk in the head late in Game 2 — retaliation for a clean hit on Patrick Marleau.
The suspension came on the heels of his three-game ban for boarding in last spring's post-season matchup with the Bruins, which his team also lost in seven.
WATCH | Kadri loses cool on DeBrusk:
The question regarding the 28-year-old with a movable contract heading into an uncertain summer is this: Can the Leafs trust Kadri not to lash out in a crucial moment next time around?
"They can," he said at Scotiabank Arena. "They know I'm not a selfish person. All these instances are standing up for other people.
"I would do anything for this team, anything for the players. I'd much rather have somebody on my team that maybe cares a little too much than too little. It's just something I've got to control."
WATCH | Leafs in for long, busy off-season:
Asked the same question, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas didn't answer directly, but made it clear Toronto needs Kadri, who often plays at or close to the edge, to keep his emotions in check.
"His temperance is a major point," Dubas said. "He's an excellent player for us, and brings an element that we don't have in abundance. Yes, he likes to defend his teammates and he plays hard and everything of that nature, but we need him to be available.
"It's a major challenge for him character-wise."
Suspended for 19 games since 2013 — including eight of Toronto's last 14 playoff dates — Kadri's most recent indiscretion severely weakened the Leafs' strength down the middle behind John Tavares and Auston Matthews against Boston.
WATCH | Dubas discuss Toronto's future:
While Dubas said the team will do what it can to assist Kadri, the player added he's also going to look for help.
"Usually I don't think about consequences ahead of time," Kadri said. "That's something I'm becoming much more aware of."
Even if the Leafs believe Kadri can change, there's a strong argument to be made this is the time to move on anyways.
He will be 29 early next season, scored the fewest goals of his career (16) in 2018-19 following back-to-back 32-goal campaigns and is signed for another three years at an attractive annual salary cap hit of just $4.5 million US.
That trade chip could get Toronto help on defence — Jake Gardiner looks set to be leaving in free agency on July 1 — or take back assets and clear cap space to help re-sign pending restricted free agent Mitch Marner, who is expected to command a contract in the neighbourhood of $11 million annually. Fellow RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson also need new deals.
"I'm not worried about that," Kadri said of his future with the Leafs. "I know that Kyle knows what I capable of doing."
For his part, Dubas said inking Marner before July 1 is the organization's No. 1 priority.
"It's imperative for all the other facets of our team," said the GM. "We just have to get right on it and get it done."
Marner, who led the Leafs with a career-high 94 points and is set to turn 22 on May 5, said staying in Toronto is the goal.
"I want to be here," he said. "I want to play for this team."
WATCH | Babcock reflect on team's direction:
Dubas, who signed Matthews to a five-year extension worth $58.17 million US back in February, would like to avoid a situation like the one with William Nylander. Those talks dragged through last summer, training camp and came down to the wire on Dec. 1 before the two sides came to an agreement.
The result was Nylander never really getting going — he scored just eight combined goals in 61 regular-season and playoff games.
"The blame for the situation going that far has to go to me," Dubas said. "It didn't set William up to have success."
The Leafs led the Bruins 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in their series, but couldn't put their foot down on Boston's collective throat in a playoff year that has seen a number of favourites fall in both conferences.
That missed chance for a franchise that hasn't advanced to the second round since 2004 and has failed to win the Stanley Cup since 1967 was on everyone's mind Thursday.
"You never know what's going to happen," Matthews lamented. "You definitely want to make the most of the opportunity you get."
Criticized for some of his tactics in the series — especially in Game 7 — Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said despite the disappointment, the team is moving in the right direction.
"There's pain in growing your group," he said. "This is the part where you're just trying to crawl in over the edge.
"We wanted to hang around for a long time."
Asked point-blank if Babcock and/or Kadri will be back next season, Dubas again side-stepped, pointing out that everyone in the organization, including himself, is up for review.
"We could win the Stanley Cup, and it would be the same discussion," he said. "I wouldn't give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization.
"We'll do what we think is best, and we'll let you know when we know."
And Leafs fans will be waiting.