It’s starting to become a familiar feeling for Toronto sports fans. Letting go and making peace with the fact that one of the more beloved athletes in this market is making way to begin a new chapter for the franchise.
There are parallels with DeMar DeRozan and Nazem Kadri. A top-10 draft pick in 2009. Faced criticism early on in their career, but grew with their skill level and eventually saw the team make their first playoff appearances in a very long time.
Both players have been there through the dark years but also the beginnings of what will jump-start both franchises into their own legacies. It has already happened for the Raptors. They ripped off the band-aid and traded DeRozan for one of the best players in the game, leading to the first championship in franchise history.
But when it comes to the Leafs, they already have those players and Kadri was simply placed further and further in the background as the young players got better and new elite free agents came in to play for their childhood team.
Where Kadri sat, he was a surplus. Auston Matthews and John Tavares are in their rightful places in the lineup and the London, Ontario kid who was really the first signal of the Leafs’ rebuild, was placed on the third line. He was elite there, but his role on the team was diminished.
So what true value is there in having that elite third-line centre — placing a player below where they really should be playing in an NHL lineup. On any other team not featuring two of the top-10 centres in the league, Kadri would be either a very good second-line centre or even on the first line.
But in the situation that the Leafs were in, he could be seen as a small bonus. Having the luxury of Kadri behind those two in the depth chart was seen as something that the Leafs could hold over opponents’ heads and win more games because of it.
In the end, it did result in some significant wins in the regular season, but three straight first-round exits gets to a franchise.
With the likely departures of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey to free agency, and dumping Nikita Zaitsev’s contract to make room within the cap, the blue line that was already a weak point on this team got even weaker.
Something had to get done, and the Leafs made that traditional hockey trade where they dealt from their surplus. Trade rumours and Kadri have been together ever since he didn’t make the Leafs directly out of camp early in his career, but as the Leafs became this sleeping giant of offensive talent, the centreman seemed more and more disposable with each day that passed.
Not out of ineptitude, but purely out of desperation in other positions. Of all the core members, Kadri was the one that felt the most valued across the league. The Leafs were able to address a major concern heading into this offseason with Kadri going the other way.
For now, it feels like part of history is gone. A key member that went through the same ups and downs on the team as fans did watching, has now left. If there was any fond memories of those Phaneuf-led Leafs teams, it was the hope of what Kadri could become and eventually did become. It was important that he stayed around long enough to see the true playoffs and be on a team that set regular season records.
But now on his way to Colorado, the Leafs will start a new season without the figurehead of the recent past.
This season might be the first with the true Kyle Dubas fingerprint all over it. Not all of it is perfect, but as GM, he made the moves that were necessary and dealt with some highly-questioned areas in this lineup.
By dealing from the extra advantage that he already had over other teams, Dubas was able to get a top-4 right-handed defenceman for at least one season and one young forward that can adequately replace Kadri’s minutes down the middle behind the all-star duo of Tavares and Matthews. What Kerfoot and Barrie will bring to this Leafs team cannot be accurately measured until at least a couple regular season games have been played, but in a hypothetical scenario where those two players stay true to their archetype, this can be seen as an improvement.
But that’s purely speaking from a blank, unemotional perspective. Kadri meant so much to so many and his value was immense among all Leafs fans. But just as Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster did with the beloved DeMar DeRozan, Dubas and his team had to deal away some valuable pieces to make the next step.
Keeping the status quo was not an option for the Leafs and while this trade initially hurts, some more wins when spring comes around might make take some of the emotion out of this transaction.