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December 6, 2013, 12:46 AM
TORONTO – Nazem Kadri looked right at home as a top-line centre on Thursday night and that’s a rare piece of good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This is unlikely to be a passing experiment.
Sportsnet has learned that Tyler Bozak was placed on long-term injured reserve with his oblique strain, which means that he’s unable to return until after Christmas. As a result, Kadri will be called on to centre Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on a high-powered first line that has essentially carried Toronto’s offence this season.
That continued to be the case in Thursday’s game against the Dallas Stars, with Kadri scoring twice in regulation before Trevor Smith tipped home the overtime winner during a 3-2 victory. It was the culmination of an emotional few days that saw Kadri miss Tuesday’s loss to San Jose following the sudden death of his 77-year-old grandfather – a man he was named after and who was still in his thoughts following the two-goal performance.
“I still get choked up talking about it,” said Kadri. “I know he was watching me tonight.”
It has only been a so-so start to the season for a 23-year-old who yearns to be above average. Even though Kadri remains on pace for about 60 points, he is the first to admit that his game hasn’t been consistently good enough so far.
That is why the current opportunity comes at such a perfect time. He has performed well with Kessel and JVR in the past – Kadri had four points in three games as the No. 1 centre at the end of October – and sees a little symbolism in the fact that he’s being moved back up so soon after his grandfather’s death.
His namesake had been in and out of hospital in recent months and the younger Kadri acknowledged that it was a tough thing for him to experience. Prior to Thursday’s game, he expressed hope that both he and his grandfather were now at “peace.”
“I hate to admit it, but (it has affected my play),” Kadri told sportsnet.ca. “It was always just in the back of my head – something that I had to deal with after the games. Just always constantly checking up on him. It was the first time I had gone through something like this before.
“I know it’s going to make me stronger in the end, I’ve just got to get through it and use these games and this game of hockey as my release.”
Kadri had trouble keeping his emotions together during the game against the Stars, especially when veteran forward Ray Whitney skated up to him and passed along his condolences. That was the last thing he expected to hear from a competitor.
He wound up playing more than 19 minutes on the night and was dominated in the faceoff dot – struggling in particular against Tyler Seguin and going just 7-16 overall. That is another area Kadri needs to show improvement.
However, this was yet another night when Leafs coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t critiquing a victory. His team held on for dear life in the late stages – getting outshot 50-24 by the Stars – but showed an obvious sense of relief after putting an end to a five-game losing streak.
Afterwards, there was a simple message scribbled across the whiteboard in the home dressing room: “Enjoy the Win.”
“Hopefully … we can feel a little bit of room to breathe with what we went through,” said Carlyle. “By no means do we think we’re out of the woods. But it feels good to win a hockey game.
“Hopefully they feel good in there and we can flush what’s been going on because there’s been a lot of things going on.”
One of those things is the loss of Bozak, who hasn’t been able to buy a break over the last year. He missed the end of the team’s playoff run in the spring with a torn triceps muscle and sat out 12 games earlier this season with a hamstring injury.
Now the oblique strain will keep him out until at least Dec. 27 – a period where the Leafs will play another 11 games.
In addition to Kadri, that should mean more minutes for Smith and Peter Holland during the tough stretch of games to come. The journeyman Smith has been an unlikely find for Leafs management (“If we would’ve said in the summer when we had the whiteboard and the dry erase, was Trevor Smith going to make a contribution to the level he has so far? And we’d all have said, ‘What are you crazy?”’ said Carlyle) while Holland is a player Carlyle has to get more involved.
He played just five minutes 49 seconds against Dallas, which is hardly enough to show his offensive upside.
Instead, the Leafs coach leaned heavily on Kadri – something that should be a common occurrence for the next little bit. After a tough week and a period of mourning, he’s looking ahead with optimism about the future.
“I’m kind of dealing with it a little easier now than I did a couple days ago,” said Kadri. “This is one of my escapes. This is how I try and get away from all that other stuff.”