Nazem Kadri has become quite a bargain for Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs two-way forward Nazem Kadri has matured a ton since Mike Babcock became head coach, but he did it all on his own, which has the utmost respect and confidence from teammates.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Timing is everything.

Consider now the decision by Toronto Maple Leafs management to lock Nazem Kadri up on a six-year contract back in April 2016. He’s made that $4.5-million cap hit look like an absolute bargain while slotting behind Auston Matthews down the middle of the NHL’s second-highest scoring team.

Consider the timing, as well, of Mike Babcock’s arrival behind the Leafs bench and what it’s meant for Kadri. He fed the centre a steady diet of tough minutes and discovered that it didn’t negatively impact his production.

“He’s figured it out, obviously,” Babcock said before Wednesday’s game against the Florida Panthers. “Sometimes what happens is you arrive in a place and you get credit for a guy that’s suddenly playing better. But really what happened is he came of age, and matured, and made up his own mind.

“One thing about it is until they decide, it ain’t happening.”

Want to livestream 56 Leafs games this season? See how you can stream this + over 300 regular season NHL games with Sportsnet NOW.

The 27-year-old has played a big role in a 14-8-0 start to the season.

He helped the Leafs weather a recent four-game stretch without Matthews and enters Wednesday night with points in seven straight – matching a career best – while continuing to tilt the ice against top competition.

“It obviously makes the game more fun when you’re scoring goals and contributing in that aspect, but I’ve said this before: That’s not all I care about,” said Kadri. “Obviously, wins are the most important thing. But I also have to focus on being reliable and responsible in the defensive end and taking care of some good lines. Offensively, it’s been going pretty well.

“When you get those opportunities it just feels like just a momentum thing in every single game. It’s one after another, so it feels good.”

Kadri remains unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. When the game was getting out of hand in Montreal on Saturday night, he responded to a hit from Max Pacioretty by throwing one on Shea Weber – knocking a defenceman Babcock once dubbed “man mountain” off his feet.

That resulted in both Jordie Benn and Weber going after Kadri and sent the Leafs to a power play.

“He’s a hard guy to play against,” said Panthers coach Bob Boughner. “He’s an intense player.”

“When you’re playing against someone who might run you, it keeps you on your toes a little bit more,” added Babcock.

Having both he and Matthews is especially beneficial in a game like the one they’re going to get from Florida. The Panthers give their top line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov huge minutes so it’s important for the Leafs to be able to counter with two centres capable of handling that matchup.

Kadri’s value to the Leafs far outweighs his cap hit.

You need look no further than the recent deals signed by Nashville’s Kyle Turris (six years, $6-million per) and Columbus’ Cam Atkinson (seven years, $5.875-million per) for examples of the kind of contract he could land today. He’s arguably got a stronger case than both of those players.

Looking back, it was a good bit of business for a Leafs team that will soon be squeezed by the salary cap. Once that happens, they won’t regret having Kadri’s signature on a contract through 2022.

Some of his improvement since agreeing to the extension can actually be chalked up to regression: Kadri shot 6.5 per cent during an unlucky platform season in 2015-16 and is humming along at 14.6 per cent in the 104 games since.

His teammates often poke fun at his shot – with fourth-liner Matt Martin recently calling it a “muffin” – but Kadri has no trouble letting the numbers speak for themselves. He is, after all, on pace for a second straight 30-goal season.

“Every once and a while when you pick a corner you can kind of rub it in their face a little bit,” said Kadri. “For me that’s just an ongoing joke. It’s not really something that’s super serious, it’s just something they like to poke fun at. I just go with it.

“I’m just going to keep doing my thing regardless.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.