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Nazem Kadri's growth has been 'phenomenal'

Shutdown center prominent part of Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock's game plan

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Edmonton Oilers, their shutdown center hounded Connor McDavid. He kept getting in the way so McDavid couldn't rev up to his racetrack speed. He kept bumping McDavid, hitting McDavid, bothering McDavid, drawing an exasperated smile after one nudge along the boards. He held McDavid without a point.

Oh, and he scored twice himself, including the overtime goal in a 3-2 victory at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 12.

And so a storyline entering Toronto's game against Edmonton at Rogers Place on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SNW, TSN4, NHL.TV) is how coach Mike Babcock might not be able to match his shutdown center against McDavid, the NHL's leading scorer, because he's on the road and doesn't have the last change.

But think about that for a minute: The shutdown center McDavid might avoid is Nazem Kadri.

Video: WSH@TOR: Kadri uses slick moves, buries one five-hole

There has been so much talk about the Maple Leafs' young forwards -- Auston Matthews, 19, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft; Mitchell Marner, 19, the No. 4 pick of the 2015 draft; and William Nylander, 20, the No. 8 pick of the 2014 draft -- and rightfully so.

But Kadri isn't exactly old at 26, and he was the No. 7 pick of the 2009 draft and is making strides of his own.

"He's getting to be a better and better player," Babcock said. "I think his growth as far as any player in the League in the last year has been phenomenal."

His growth has been a work in progress for years.

Players like Matthews and Marner make it look quick and easy, but it isn't always quick and easy. Before they came along, Kadri was the Maple Leafs' top prospect. But he went back to junior at age 19, even though he had three goals and two assists in six preseason games, and spent two seasons up and down from the minors.

Video: TOR@NJD: Kadri finishes Matthews' nice dish for PPG

He was the typical talented junior player who didn't have to eat right, didn't have to train right and didn't have to play right to excel, and he struggled to adjust to the NHL game. He often received criticism from Ron Wilson, then the coach of the Maple Leafs, who buried him on the wing in the bottom six instead of using him in the top six as a center at a time when the pressure was on to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But he also received guidance from Dallas Eakins, then coach of the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, who taught him how to eat, to train, to use defense to generate offense. Play defense to get the puck back. Limit turnovers to keep it on your stick. Telling him what to do didn't work, so Eakins asked him: "If you were your opponent, what would you want Nazem Kadri to do? What would you not want Nazem Kadri to do?"

"I would say to Naz, 'You should be the best defensive player on our team because you know every offensive trick there is,'" Eakins once said. "Then suddenly it started to click. We just had to teach him a different way."

Video: PHI@TOR: Kadri beats Mason with a slick move

Kadri broke out in the 2012-13 season under coach Randy Carlyle with 18 goals and 44 points in the shortened 48-game schedule, a 30-goal, 75-point pace over a full 82 games. Carlyle used him as a third-line center -- a top-six role with skilled players, not a bottom-six role with grinders -- and on the power play. Kadri felt the coach had confidence in him, and he had more confidence in himself.

This could be his best season since, or better. There is more talent around him, less attention and pressure on him, a long-term growth mindset in the organization, and he has a more defined role. He's tied for the Toronto lead in goals with nine and two off the points lead with 16 through 21 games, a 35-goal, 62-point pace over 82 games, and he's a shutdown center.

He has been better at home, where he has a clear assignment on which to concentrate, and needs to improve on the road, where he hasn't paid the same attention to detail. But Eakins was right, wasn't he?

Video: VAN@TOR: Kadri beats Miller glove side from circle

"When you're playing against good players and you play right, you don't spend a lot of time in your zone, and you end up getting chances because they take chances," Babcock said recently when asked about Kadri. "He's competitive in the circle. He's looking after defense. He takes what they give him, and he stays patient, and he gets his opportunities."

Kadri isn't a top prospect anymore, and that's a good thing. He's a veteran.

"That's what you learn, just playing more games," Kadri said recently. "You just understand that when you're not scoring when you're supposed to, you can still do other things to help the team win. In my particular case, shutting down top lines definitely is a priority of mine. But I also want to be an offensive threat out there and bring offense to my line and kind of be that dual threat."

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