The centre, who only a couple years ago was mired in trade rumours as the franchise pursued a scorched-earth rebuild, has already set a career high in goals with 23 heading into Saturday’s contest against the Ottawa Senators. Seven additional points from now and he’ll set a new career high in that category as well.
More importantly, however, has been the improvements he has made in his game when he doesn’t have the puck.
“I think Naz is just starting his journey. He’s way better than he’s playing. He can be way better,” Babcock told Hockey Central at Noon Friday. “He’s going to start dominating the faceoff circle, which is important for him. Get better in the faceoff circle, continue to get better without the puck and in doing so will end up scoring more.
“He’s a kid, to me, that took a huge step this summer with his training, has to take another step again this summer with his training and then he’s got a lot of growth potential,” Babcock said. “I’m impressed with him because he’s a bit nasty, he’s competitive at game time, he’s learning to work harder every day, he’s becoming a better pro and he’s a big part of our team.”
Despite seldom killing penalties—he has logged just 2:32 of total short-handed ice-time through 56 games—he’s playing so well defensively that he has even found himself, in some circles at least, in the Selke Trophy conversation. Now, Kadri isn’t quite on the level of Selke staples Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, but it’s something Babcock wants to help Kadri work towards.
“When that first got talked about I said to him, ‘Do you really want to win that trophy?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely one day I’d like to win that trophy.’ Then I said ‘Then we’ve got lots of work to do.’ But if he wants to win it then I’m going to do everything I can to help,”
Babcock gives glowing review of blueliners
On Jake Gardiner…
“I think Gardiner’s come a million miles. He’s one of these guys people love not to like at times, but he’s such a great breakout machine, he moves the puck so good.
“Now, does he do some things high risk? Yes. But he really can move the puck and he doesn’t spend a lot of time in his zone. Some nights when he’s not so good he spends too much time in his own zone.”
On Nikita Zaitsev…
“Here’s a question I asked [Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello] the other day: Where would we be if we didn’t have this guy?
“Flat out. He’s playing on our No. 1 pair, he’s playing all the matchup minutes, he’s a competitive guy, blocks shots, cross-checks really nice, gets points for you. I think he’s a really good player. We’re just really lucky we got him to tell you the truth and he’s such a quality teammate and takes his profession so seriously. It has been a huge coup for us to have him.”