Through Sunday’s schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs are two points shy of the top spot in the National Hockey League’s Atlantic Division. Last season, the Leafs nearly lost as many games as they won and missed the playoffs.
One key component in Toronto’s turnaround has been 24-year-old center Nazem Kadri, the fourth Lebanese player in NHL history and a practicing Muslim who grew up in Canada.
Kadri has always been a solid scorer — last season he had 20 goals and 30 assists in 78 games — but this season his defense has shown a noticeable improvement. A recent article in the National Post talks about how Kadri is being given tougher defensive assignments and is being kept on the ice against opposing teams’ top lineups, something that wouldn’t have happened in the past.
Two years ago, head coach Randy Carlyle did not even trust him to take defensive-zone faceoffs. But the once-skinny, out-of-shape centre whose game used to be a high-wire act of highlight-reel goals and giveaways, has done a lot of growing in the last few months.
You can see it with the eight goals and 19 points — 17 of which were scored in even-strength — he has scored this season. But more than that, you can see it with his increasing ice time and the way he is being used.
The timing of Kadri’s evolution into a two-way player couldn’t be better, as he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s putting himself in line for a substantial payday, if not from the Leafs, than from another team who covets his talent and potential.
“I understood that if I played the full 200-foot game that everything would come along with it,” Kadri was quoted in the National Post. “I think that’s a part of developing and maturing is not worrying about one aspect of your game. But as soon as you bring everything together, then things start falling in place for you.”
VIDEO: Nazem Kadri Highlight Reel