For most of our lives, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been the most popular sports team in Canada. But due to a 50-year Stanley Cup drought, the longest active drought in the NHL, the Leafs have fallen off both in terms of popularity and value and the Montreal Canadiens have passed them in both categories.

Maple Leaf fans grieved, and some with less patience even moved on to bigger and better things, but there was always hope that one day the Maple Leafs would claim their rightful place in the NHL. Who knew two former London Knights would help make it happen?

Nazem Kadri and Mitchell Marner have been largely overshadowed by the brilliance of the 2016 number one overall pick Auston Matthews, but the two former London Knights are crucial pieces of the Maple Leafs rebuild. Fifty-five games into the 2016–17 season and the young and improved Maple Leafs are surprising the hockey world, currently sitting 12th in the league with 1.15 points per game. Marner leads the team with 48 points, while Kadri sits in fourth with 42. The two former Knights have taken their talents across the 401 from London to Toronto, and Maple Leaf fans in London couldn’t be prouder. 

“London has one of if not the best major junior organizations in the country and with no professional hockey teams in the city, many fans are drawn to Toronto,” Kyle Robinson, a Western student born and raised in London, told the Gazette. “There are a lot of Maple Leaf fans in London so I think it excites people even more to see two players from London part of the Toronto rebuild.”

Kadri was born in London, Ontario in 1990. After playing two seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 219 points in 138 games, Kadri was drafted seventh overall by the Maple Leafs in 2009. In his eighth season with the Maple Leafs, fresh off signing a six-year, $27 million-dollar contract to stay with the team long term, Kadri is having a career year. After 55 games, Kadri has put up 21 goals and 42 points, on pace to pass career-highs in both categories, all while averaging just 16:39 minutes per night. Kadri’s line, which currently consists of wingers William Nylander and Leo Komarov, plays a shutdown role for the Leafs under head coach Mike Babcock. This means Kadri starts most of his shifts (77.22 per cent) in the defensive or neutral zone and faces some of the toughest competition in the league. 

“As the new wave of younger guys come in, obviously Kadri had to make an adjustment now as a mentor and more of a role player,” Robinson said. “He's good at what he does, getting under key players of the opposition's skin. And if Toronto is going to remain a contender in the league and move forward, more than likely that's the type of player he's going to be.”

The fact that Kadri is putting up career highs while successfully shutting down some of the league’s best players is impressive, and the dirty work is not something Kadri shies away from.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Kadri told James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail. “Obviously I’m a pretty competitive person so I don’t want to come out of the wrong end of that matchup. So I’m going to do everything I can to do my job and help the team win.”

Helping the team win is exactly what Kadri is doing, and his role as a shutdown player allows the rookies to pile up points against weaker opposition, which is exactly what Marner is doing.

Marner was born in Markham, Ontario in 1997. Yes, he’s only 19 years old. Marner is a household name around London due to the fact that he played three seasons with the Knights and brought a championship to the city in 2016. During his time in London, Marner scored 370 points in 220 games. In his final season with the Knights (2015-16), after being drafted fourth overall to the Leafs in 2015, Marner had a year for the books where he scored 116 points in 57 regular season games and 44 points in 18 playoff games. He was named the OHL’s most outstanding player, led the Knights to OHL and Memorial Cup championships, and was named MVP for both tournaments.

In his first season with the Leafs, Marner picked up where he left off in London. Fifty-five games in and Marner leads the Leafs and all NHL rookies with 48 points. Marner, who at 5’11, 164 pounds was thought to be too small to make the leap to the NHL, has proved his doubters wrong. The kid is an offensive threat every time he steps on the ice and has worked extremely hard to prove that success at the NHL level doesn’t depend on size, but rather skills and smarts.

As Babcock puts it, “I’ve never coached a kid that good [and] that young.” And he’s been coaching in the NHL since 2002.

“I was at the game in London during the NHL All-Star break when Marner dropped the puck during the opening ceremony. It is clear that he was a huge part of London hockey and that [feeling] will remain for many fans as he plays in Toronto,” Robinson said. “So I think that not only him, but [also] Kadri, will have a huge impact on Londoners feeling towards the rebuilding team in Toronto.”

With seven weeks remaining in the NHL season, the Maple Leafs currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs will surely meet their goal of playing meaningful hockey down the stretch, and might even be able to squeak into the playoffs. If they are able to pull it off, it will be due in large part to Kadri and Marner, two former Knights who have taken their talents across the 401 and brought the city of London with them.

All statistics current as of Feb. 15, 2017.

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