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Maple Leafs playoff push led by budding Nazem Kadri

Nazem Kadri has nine goals and 23 points in 23 games. (Getty Images)

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Nazem Kadri has nine goals and 23 points in 23 games. (Getty Images)

Nazem Kadri is not lacking for a sense of self, that’s for sure. Must have something to do with having all that talent. And if the young man is looking for even more reason to have an enhanced ego, here is another one. As the Toronto Maple Leafs continue their quest to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, it’s Kadri who is leading the way.

That he’s leading the Leafs in scoring by six points despite playing third-line minutes for much of the first half of the season tells only part of the story. As begrudgingly as Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had to admit, it’s actually Kadri who is making teammates around him better. After the Leafs 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils in which Kadri had a goal and an assist, Carlyle disclosed that new linemate Clarke MacArthur had generated 26 scoring chances in three games. “

I’d be a fool to split them up,” Carlyle conceded.

Clearly the Leafs are onto something special this season. Since the 2004-05 lockout, it has required an average of 91.3 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, which equates to 53.4 in the lockout-shortened season. So let’s say it will take 55 points to make the post-season. That means the Leafs require just 27 points in their final 25 games, barely a shade over .500 hockey.

And you can look at things one of two ways. If the Leafs continue to turn out efforts like they did against the Devils Tuesday night, they might be putting the playoffs in jeopardy. But if they can get away with 20 minutes of good hockey and win games in regulation, that’s the sign of a team that has something going, no?

“I think our team is pretty good this year,” Kadri said, “and you’ve got to be good to be lucky.”

Kadri could have been speaking about his team and himself. For an organization that has left a scrap heap of players developed too quickly in its wake, the Leafs took an uncharacteristically patient approach to developing their first real homegrown elite center since Darryl Sittler in 1970. With the right mix of exposure to the big team and an apprenticeship in the minors, Kadri acknowledge the “tough love” he has received from the organization has been a benefit.

And clearly Carlyle feels part of his mandate as coach is to continually remind Kadri he’s not quite as impressed with his young star as most other people are. The approach has worked with Kadri, who certainly doesn’t need others telling him how good he is. You can tell by Carlyle’s words and body language that he sees a danger in Kadri becoming the subject of idolatry.

“You (media) guys just want to anoint him, don’t you?” Carlyle said after the game against the Devils. “He’s a great young player who has a skill set that sets him apart from other people. But in the second period, he goes 1-on-4 and that is the start of an onslaught of turning the puck over, then he had a two-minute shift. He had all those things and he still ends up being the fair-haired boy. And that’s great because he is a special player.”

Again, it's an approach that Carlyle is taking with Kadri and it’s working wonders. And Carlyle is also one of those coaches who seems to intuitively know how to deploy his players. Take Kadri, for example. Generally speaking, he has been terrible on faceoffs this season, to the point where it has essentially cost him a spot on the top power play unit. But in the game against the Devils, Carlyle saw Kadri winning some draws and, as a result, had him out for draws in the defensive zone with a one-goal lead. On the night, Kadri ended up winning 11 of 19 draws.

Carlyle knows his team is going to have to be much better than it was Tuesday night if it wants to turn this impressive first half into a playoff spot. And as good as Kadri has been, he has to continue his upward trajectory. If self-confidence has anything to do with it, Kadri will be a Hart Trophy contender by the end of the season. This kid is so comfortable in his skin that he admits being brought along slowly has been a good thing, but clearly thinks he could have handled the NHL from the time he was drafted.

“If I would have gotten the opportunity a little sooner, who knows what I would have done with it?” Kadri said. “We always knew the offense was there and I’m a quick learner, too. I think if I was put in situations, especially as a young guy, I would have been able to pick up on the go.”

You have to admit it, the kid has swagger. And in large part because of the way he has played, so do the Maple Leafs.

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Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.

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