TORONTO — Nazem Kadri thinks about the game differently than he might have as a younger player now that he’s more than 300 games into his NHL career.
“My mindset’s totally changed,” said Kadri. “Before I went pro, taking faceoffs, if I won them I won them if I lost them I lost them. Half the time I was trying to go forward on draws anyway to try to create offence.”
It’s not simply the points now that are driving Kadri.
The 25-year-old has evolved into a better all-around player from the offence-first approach of his younger years. He matched a career-high with four points Thursday night against Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks, including the overtime winner, as the Toronto Maple Leafs topped Anaheim 6-5.
It was Toronto’s fifth victory in the past six games and pushed them out of the league basement.
Kadri finished the game with two goals, two assists and a 64 per cent success rate on the draw. He also managed to keep Getzlaf off the scoreboard entirely at even strength. The Anaheim captain was held to only a power-play assist.
Kadri said his primary goal against Getzlaf was containment, “because now I understand that it translates to offensive chances.”
“I thought he was real good,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of Kadri’s efforts against Getzlaf.
“Naz is a brave guy. He’s nasty to play against. He competes hard. He wants to do it right … And he doesn’t back up to anybody. I think a big part of playing against good players is being mean enough to do it and compete hard enough to do it and he does that.”
Babcock challenged Kadri to become a more reliable defensive player earlier this season and someone who could tangle with players like Getzlaf on a nightly basis.
Babcock wanted evolution and improvement in a season that was easily the most important in Kadri’s career.
Inked to a one-year contract last summer following a turbulent 2014-15 season, and due to be a restricted agent again come July, Kadri had to demonstrate to Babcock and the Maple Leafs that he was worth investing in long-term.
He seems to have proven that point with an effective all-around season.
“I think he has a chance to be a real good player,” Babcock said. “He’s done whatever I asked and competed hard.”
Not only has Kadri managed to hold his head above water in the rigorous role he’s been assigned, remaining among Toronto’s better puck possession players, he’s also managed to produce some offence.
His four-point performance Thursday pushed him past last year’s total of 39 points and into sole possession of the Leafs scoring lead. He’s done so with a rotating cast of mostly mild offensive talent, playing much of the year with Michael Grabner, who went nearly 30 games at one point without managing a point.
“This is definitely something different,” Kadri said of his role. “But I embraced it, I took it as a challenge, and I do understand that good defence leads to good offence.”
Tyler Bozak, a teammate since Kadri entered the league in 2010, says he’s been struck most by the London, Ont., native’s committment to defence. Bozak observed that Kadri wasn’t “cheating at all” in his own zone to create offence.
Babcock said that was a mindset which put winning first above all else.
Kadri, too, has improved dramatically in the faceoff circle, winning 50 per cent of his draws this season. He was right near the bottom of the league in faceoff acumen during the 2014-15 season, winning just 46 per cent of the time.
“Just experience,” Kadri said of the uptick on the draw. “That’s really what I think is crucial to being a centreman is just going up against these guys and knowing what they want to do and always trying to put new moves into your arsenal so you’re not so predictable.”
Babcock is urging Kadri to get stronger in the off-season and continue developing a shot that, he maintains, is in need of some work. Kadri, to that point, has fired a career-high 243 shots, but has only 14 goals, the lowest among NHL forwards with at least 200 shots.
The evolution is ongoing.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow and become better,” said Bozak. “And I know he’s still got a lot of room to get better too.”