With an eye on the NHL, top prospects eschew taking summer breaks

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TORONTO - The summer passed Nazem Kadri by. Literally.

The highly touted Toronto Maple Leafs prospect spent the warmest days of the year behind the wheel of a car—making frequent trips from his home in London, Ont., to the NHL team's practice facility for workouts.

It was no secret that Kadri needed to add some muscle, so he basically confined himself to the weight room. Even after a long season of junior hockey, the 19-year-old didn't indulge in an exotic vacation or a long stretch on the dock of a cottage.

"Absolutely not, it was all business this summer," Kadri said Wednesday at the NHLPA's rookie showcase. "I just worked as hard as I could. ... No breaks for me this summer—it was just all work, work, work.

"That's how it's got to be if you want to make the NHL."

Jordan Eberle was only slightly more fortunate. The 20-year-old Edmonton Oilers prospect allowed himself a week off to visit junior teammate Colten Teubert in White Rock, B.C.

Otherwise, the majority of his time was spent focusing on what he needs to do to crack the Oilers roster out of training camp.

"It's kind of been a quick summer for me," said Eberle.

Not that he was complaining. As Eberle and 22 of the NHL's other top prospects gathered in Toronto to have their photos taken for trading cards, there was a palpable level of excitement in the air.

Many will participate in rookie tournaments over the next week or two before attending their NHL team's main camp starting Sept. 17. It will be an opportunity for them to finally put a summer's worth of hard work to good use.

"I feel like I'm really prepared," said Swedish forward Magnus Paajarvi, another Oilers prospect. "I feel like I'm in really good shape. I just want to get it started."

Added Jordan Schroeder, a Vancouver Canucks first-rounder: "Everyone here wants to make an NHL squad this year. We're all very anxious to get off to training camp and get things going."

Eberle and Kadri will each be going through training camp for a second time and both have a very good chance to earn a spot with a rebuilding team.

With their NHL dream so close, it was pretty easy getting down to work in recent months. Motivation was never far away.

"It's really different (compared to last year)—you can really see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Eberle.

Even though Kadri has repeatedly said he's taking nothing for granted, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke acknowledged earlier this summer that the teenaged centre will likely start the season in the NHL.

A fan base that has seen its team miss the playoffs for five consecutive seasons seems ready to label him as a player who can help lead the turnaround. Never short on confidence, Kadri embraces those expectations.

"That's just what comes here," he said. "That's the territory that comes with playing in Toronto. You've got to be able to handle the pressures and handle the criticism and take it as constructive criticism.

"For me, I just thrive off pressure. I really don't mind it, I think I can rise to the occasion."

It is something every NHL prospect hopes to do once the summer officially ends.

Teams have increasingly turned to younger players in recent years so everyone feels as though they have a shot. It kept many of them from taking a break.

"I've just been working hard all summer," said towering defenceman Erik Gudbranson, selected third overall by Florida in June. "Who knows what happens in the coming years? But this summer, with this jump that could potentially be made, I really wanted to work hard and bear down and get the job done."

One of the few prospects who acknowledged enjoying some downtime in recent months was Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. The 23-year-old forward spent the past two seasons with Modo in the Swedish Elite League before signing with the New York Rangers as a free agent.

He didn't change his routine from past off-seasons.

"I tried to just do my thing that I've been always doing," said Zuccarello-Aasen. "I practised with my old team in Sweden for most of the summer, been on the ice with them as well. After practising there for a couple months, I was in Spain for two weeks.

"It was pretty good."



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