Veteran Kadri happy to lead Flames’ youth movement by example

Noah Hanifin scored twice and Dan Vladar made 32 saves as the Calgary Flames walked to a 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers in the Battle of Alberta.

CALGARY — Where would the Calgary Flames be without Nazem Kadri this season?

I tend to ask questions like that when gauging how important a certain player has been to their team. The answers in this case are quite telling.

Without Kadri, the Flames wouldn’t have their most dangerous offensive line, which just happens to include a pair of rookie wingers in Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil. They also wouldn’t have their most consistent skater, their nightly tone-setter, or their leading scorer.

Kadri has been that important this season. He’s one of the driving forces keeping Calgary’s playoff hopes alive with March around the corner.

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And while most in this market now recognize just how vital Kadri has been this year, his second with the Flames, it hasn’t always been that way. After a great start, Kadri’s effectiveness dropped off in the second half of his first campaign in Calgary. He started this season with one point in his first eight games.

But any of the criticism directed at Kadri, fair or unfair, has mostly faded. Since his slow start offensively, Kadri has 50 points in his last 50 games. He’s centred the team’s most dangerous line since early November, noticeably elevating the games of Pospisil and Zary along the way. It’s one of Calgary’s biggest success stories this season.

“There’s a big reason why Connor and Marty have had good years,” head coach Ryan Huska admitted last week. “Naz deserves a lot of credit for that, because sometimes as an older guy, you say ‘They’re calling two guys up and I’m going to play with these two guys?’

“He wants to be a driver and he wants to have impact, but he took that the right way. He made that line arguably our most consistent line since they’ve been put together. Naz has had a real good impact this year. We’re really pleased with what he’s been able to do for our team, both on and off the ice.”

Kadri has consistently answered the bell when the team has needed it most. There he was calling his own number with an overtime winner Thursday against Boston. Two nights later against the archrival Oilers, he kicked off an emotional 6-3 win with a huge early goal and an accompanying celebration to match.

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Far more often than not this season you’ve been able to count on Kadri setting the tone and the Flames following suit.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Kadri said last week. “Obviously it’s how you become a good professional and, you know, throughout the course of the season… it’s long. The majority of the time you’re probably not going to feel your best. You’ve got to find different ways to engage in the game and contribute. I’m just trying to lead the way.”

This applies when things haven’t gone well, too. Kadri’s high engagement level was especially noticeable in a pair of flat home losses to Detroit and San Jose last week. Even on nights when most haven’t had it, Kadri is usually there trying to drag the group into the fight.

“That’s just the way you should lead in general. I think any veteran player understands that you’ve got to show up night in and night out and that’s what good teams do. That’s what good players do.”

And there’s no question Kadri’s fire, preparation, and consistency have rubbed off on those he’s spent the most time with this season.

“Sometimes as a young guy, especially in those first couple months, it could have been easy to say: ‘Okay I don’t have it tonight,’” Zary raved last week.

“But when you see Kads going, then you’re like ‘Okay I’ve got to get on my horse a little bit’ and that kind of pushes you to up your game and compete even harder. When you’re learning at the next level and you see the guy beside you always going at 110 per cent and wanting to win, wanting to make plays and do what he does as much as he does… it pushes you to the next level.”

The Flames are in the middle of an organizational pivot. Young, promising players like Zary and Pospisil will be keys to this directional shift ultimately being successful. But so will leaders and veteran pros like Kadri, who is under contract for five more seasons at $7 million annually.

If he’s cool with the team’s plan, and with the evidence presented so far this season, Kadri seems like the perfect fit to help the Flames return to true contention in the next few years. At this point in Kadri’s career, that’s what drives him most.

“That’s really what it comes down to,” Kadri said following another standout performance Saturday in Edmonton, which saw him mix it up multiple times with the menacing Evander Kane.

“I’m not trying to go out there and take any L’s. I don’t want to lose.”

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