TORONTO — Nazem Kadri is pretty much the only one who can claim to have seen this coming.
If you were to go back to the start of the season — just 60 days ago — would you have believed that Kadri would be leading the Toronto Maple Leafs in scoring at this point?
Would you have believed that defensive-minded coach Randy Carlyle would approach a must-win game against the Tampa Bay Lightning by deploying Kadri head-to-head against Steven Stamkos? Would you have believed that Kadri would come out on top of that matchup?
Finally given a chance — finally ready for the chance — Kadri is making believers out of those around the Maple Leafs. The one thing the 22-year-old never lacked during all of the twists and turns in his career over the last couple years was a belief in himself.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Kadri said after picking up three assists in Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over the Lightning. “I knew I could provide this type of offence — it was just a matter of when really. I worked my butt off these last three years to put myself in this position.
“I know for a fact a lot of people didn’t think I could do it, which made me push even harder.”
Kadri’s 30 points through 30 games was good enough to put him inside the top-15 in league scoring.
However, the most interesting development is Carlyle’s newfound willingness to use Kadri in tough defensive situations. This season there have been few, if any, of the glaring turnovers that had previously been considered a knock against the seventh-overall pick and he can now look forward to more minutes against top competition as a result.
“I think the one thing we are going to do is we’re going to test Kadri against the best players,” said Carlyle. “He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him.”
Kadri has found himself skating alongside Joffrey Lupul since the veteran returned from a broken arm over the weekend. On Wednesday night, Nikolai Kulemin was on the other wing — a move Carlyle made to bring a safer element to the unit.
The early results were encouraging.
Kulemin made a nice individual move to score his fourth goal of the season while Lupul converted a nice Kadri pass for his third goal in two games. The veteran winger is happy to find himself playing with the team’s leading scorer.
“The thing I like about playing with him is he always wants the puck,” said Lupul. “He puts himself in a position where he can get it and he calls for it. Every shift, whether he’s made a mistake the shift before or done something great the shift before, he’s going to keep playing the same way.
“I think that confidence is key for the way he plays.”
The only worry coming out of the game against Tampa was whether Lupul would be available for Thursday’s game in Buffalo. He caught Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman with a shoulder to the head in the third period and might find himself facing supplementary discipline.
Kadri came away from the game with Tampa feeling invigorated by the chance to match lines with Stamkos.
“We went up against them pretty much the whole night,” he said. “Especially when you have a couple guys in (Martin) St. Louis and Stamkos who can really hurt you, you’ve got to elevate your game to a certain level. That’s just not offensively, it’s defensively too.
“I think we rose to the occasion tonight.”
With the Leafs locked in a five-game winless streak and lingering near the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Carlyle has shown plenty of patience with Kadri this season and been careful to try and keep expectations reasonable when asked about him by reporters. However, after seeing Kadri’s performance against Tampa, he heaped plenty of praise in the young player’s direction.
“I think this is just another step in the maturing of a young hockey player,” said Carlyle. “The good things outweigh the poor judgments that he’s making by 10 to two. I don’t think you should ever stifle (him).”
It’s been a welcome development for the Leafs.
The subject of much debate in Toronto the last couple years, Kadri has quickly become an established member of the team.
“It shows you the fire and the competitiveness that he has inside of him,” said Carlyle. “That’s really what everybody has learned from being around the kid. You can go up one side of him and down the other on his deficiencies, but in the end he’s going to go back out there and prove you wrong.
“That’s a special skill. Naz’s got that.”