TORONTO – Randy Carlyle has a new mandate for Nazem Kadri.
"The one thing that we are going to do is we're going to test Kadri against the best players," Carlyle said after his team snapped a five-game winless skid with a 4-2 victory over the Lightning. "He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him."
Running shotgun with Joffrey Lupul and Nik Kulemin on Wednesday evening, Kadri went toe to toe with the league's deadliest sniper, ringing up a career-high three assists as the Leafs won for the first time in over two weeks.
In a move that both rewards and tests the emerging 22-year-old centre, Carlyle tasked Kadri and his unit with Tampa's very best, a potent trio that includes two of the NHL's five top point-getters in Steven Stamkos (21 goals, 40 points) and Martin St. Louis (39 points). Not only did Kadri and Co. factor into three of the four Toronto goals, they also kept the Stamkos and St. Louis off the board completely, Stamkos managing a single shot.
"You've got to elevate your game to a certain level," Kadri said of the considerable task opposite Stamkos, "and I think we rose to the occasion tonight."
Kadri has aced most of his assignments this year, from snatching a job in training camp to dominating opposing third lines and defence pairings, to sparking the rotating cast of linemates he's been paired with.
This next test, however, is likely to prove the most challenging. Not only will he be tasked with providing continued offence, Kadri will now also be confronted with slowing opposing top lines.
"I think this is just another step in the maturing of a young hockey player," Carlyle said of his decision to increase Kadri's responsibility. "And I'm sure there's going to be some speed bumps along the way and he's going to turn the puck over when we don't want him to ... [but] the good things outweigh the poor judgments that he's making by 10 to 2."
Kadri went tic-tac-toe with Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson (two assists) on the Leafs first goal, added a second assist on Toronto's second marker from Dion Phaneuf and fed the suddenly snipe-happy Kulemin (two goals in two games) for the final tally. With the three-point night, he re-assumed the team-lead in scoring, now with 30 points in 30 games, good for 13th best (tie) league-wide.
1. Kadri's D
Carlyle shrugged off any inference of weakness in Kadri's defensive game. "The biggest emergence of Nazem Kadri is where and when in the game to try and use the skill moves," Carlyle said. "He was always good defensively when he played in the American Hockey League and [when] he played junior hockey; he was always a guy that you could count on being strong down low. He was a guy that knew the position and played the position and wasn't foreign to being low in the defensive zone. I think what the pros do and what happens in your transition from junior to pro hockey, it's the number of times that you expose yourself to the high-risk, high-reward and where you do it and when you do it on the ice. And that's really been the learning curve for Nazzie because we always knew that he had skill."
2. Kadri & Lupul
Their symmetry was apparent from their first shift together this past Saturday – a 5-4 shootout loss to Winnipeg – Lupul depositing his first goal of the season on a feed from Kadri. "The thing I like about playing with him is he always wants the puck," said Lupul of Kadri. "He puts himself in a situation where he can get it and he calls for it." Said Kadri of Lupul, "...he's a big body and he knows how to get to the areas that he's most able to score. I think my strongest asset is playmaking, finding those open guys. Me and him just really seem to know where each other are out there." In two games upon his return from a 25-game absence (fractured right forearm), Lupul has three goals and an assist, also ringing up four minor penalties.
3. Lupul on Hedman
Most notable among the two minors he took against the Lightning was the illegal hit to the head collision with Victor Hedman in the opening moments of the third period. "I was back-checking and I believe it was Naz [who] had him angled and then he kind of cut to the middle at the end," Lupul said. "I wasn't even truly tracking him to go hit him, he just kind of came back into me." The 29-year-old claimed to have no intent. "I didn't realize I got him in the head," he continued. "I saw he was hurt. Again I've got to see the replay, but by no means did I go after him trying to hit him in the head."
4. Gardiner's return
Jake Gardiner returned to the Leafs on Wednesday night, logging 19 minutes alongside John-Michael Liles. Prior to the game Carlyle defended the organization's decision to keep him in the American Hockey League to this point. "When we did that we based it upon what was going to be best for Jake Gardiner's long-term development versus putting him in a situation he couldn't possibly have success at here," Carlyle said. "Now is Jake Gardiner going to be the saviour? That's a label we have to guard ourselves against. That's not what we're saying as a coaching staff or as an organization. We want Jake Gardiner to come in and be Jake Gardiner. His contribution will be measured on the success that we have or the success that he has on the ice in his performance." Gardiner was on the shelf for six-plus weeks with a concussion prior to the lockout's conclusion, returning to the Leafs for the first time on January 23. The 22-year-old played in two games and was promptly reassigned to the Marlies. "You have to remember the concussion took him out of the American Hockey League for close to six weeks," Carlyle continued. "He basically did very little before he got an opportunity to come back and participate in our training camp and it showed. That's not an easy thing to recover from. We're asking a player to play in the highest level and the best level in the league and we felt he wasn't up to speed."
5. Liles' assessment of Gardiner
In conversation with TSN.ca on Wednesday morning, John-Michael Liles offered an in-depth assessment of Gardiner, his defence partner versus Tampa. "I think he's confident without being cocky which is great," Liles said. "That's what you want in a young guy. You want a young guy to believe that he can contribute to a team, but not sit there and say 'You know what I'm better than you, you've been in this league 10 years, I know more than you right'. You obviously see the skating first and foremost and I think his game developed as the year went along last year into more of a well-rounded [defenceman], not just a skating [defenceman], jumping in at the right times, he was reading the play better, he was contributing in all areas of the ice, not just offensively."
"I think he was very visible in the game," Carlyle said of Gardiner after the game, noting some needed changes Gardiner will be required to make in the NHL. "I think Jake did some real good things. You noticed him up on the rush and you noticed him skating the puck."
Quote of the Night
"The one thing that we are going to do is we're going to test Kadri against the best players."
-Randy Carlyle, on increasing the role and responsibilities of Nazem Kadri.
3: Assists for Kadri, a career-high.
58-64: Leaf penalty kill in the past 20 games, including a perfect 4-for-4 effort against the Lightning. The unit ranks sixth in the NHL at 85.4 per cent.
April 2-5, 2011: The last time prior to Wednesday that Nik Kulemin had scored in consecutive games.
5 games: Point streak for Phil Kessel. Kessel tallied a single assist giving him four goals and four assists in that span. He sits second on the team in scoring with 28 points.
7-6-0: Leaf record at home.
0: Goals for Matt Frattin in five games upon return from a left knee injury.
5: Goals for Phaneuf, most among Leaf defenders.
19:20: Jake Gardiner.
The Leafs visit the Sabres in Buffalo on Thursday for the second half of a back-to-back set.