NEW YORK – HBO wanted Nazem Kadri to wear a microphone for a matchup with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins last week at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, but the 23-year-old politely declined.
“Thank God I did because I was a mouthpiece,” said Kadri with a large grin.
Kadri went toe to toe with Crosby that night – a 3-1 loss – jawing all evening with one of the greatest in the game. He had no trouble feeling like he belonged on the same stage as a player of Crosby's status, but with more challenging competition and significantly less luck than a year ago, he has found life considerably more difficult this season with the Leafs.
Kadri had a scintillating 35 points through the first 34 games of last season, but through the same number of games this season he has a mere 22, still respectable but not quite at the electric level of his first full campaign in the NHL.
Why the change? For one, quality of competition has increased for Toronto's 2009 first-round pick.
Because of injuries down the middle to Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, Kadri has played higher in the Toronto lineup than he did in the lockout-shortened 2013. Since the start of December in fact, he has been paired with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the top line, an audition which has presented its fair share of challenges.
Kadri began with a bang, scoring twice against Dallas on Dec. 5, but since that point he has tallied just three points in nine games, the No. 1 unit unusually quiet through the first three weeks of the month.
“You're playing against a lot of good players,” Kadri told the Leaf Report before a Monday date with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “You've just got to be consistent night in and night out basically.”
Kadri was placed in an optimal role for success a year ago.
Tucked in behind Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski on the depth chart at centre-ice, he lined up often against third and fourth lines, also rarely if ever squaring off against the opposition's top defensive pairing. And he took full advantage, totalling 44 points in 48 games, his skill often too much to handle.
But with Bozak sidelined by an oblique injury until at least the end of December, Kadri, playing with the Leafs top-two scorers, has gotten the opposition's best just about every night. On Saturday against the Red Wings, he was held without a point or even shot on goal by Detroit's top pair of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson.
“He's a young player still cutting his teeth to become a higher level first line, second line centre, whatever word you want to describe an offensive player,” Randy Carlyle said of Kadri prior to the 5-4 shootout loss to the Wings. “We're asking a lot of a young player right now where last year we were able to use Nazzie more as a third line option and protect him from having to play up against the top two lines of other hockey clubs.”
“It's everything I expected it to be,” Kadri said of the top line challenge. “Sometimes the puck swings your way some games, but defensively I think I've really taken strides in the right direction. I know when you're doing everything else well those points are going to start to come.”
Unlike last season, the pucks haven't swung in Kadri's favour very often so far.
No player in the league had better fortune in 2013. The Leafs boasted a 15 per cent shooting percentage when Kadri was on the ice in five-on-five situations last season, the best mark of any player in the league.
With luck on his side, Kadri accumulated 82 per cent of his overall at even-strength, his 36 points leading the team.
Those numbers have predictably regressed this season.
The Leafs shooting percentage with Kadri on the ice in five-on-five situations has dipped to 7.8 per cent, the 196th best mark league-wide. His offence at even-strength has fallen in tow, now counting for 59 per cent of his total attack.
In spite of the elevated competition and predictable dip in luck, Kadri has still had a productive second season to date. He is on pace for 24 goals and 52 points, numbers about in line with those of a good second-line centre. Still quite young despite what seems like a lengthy tenure in Toronto, there remains plenty of room and opportunity to grow.
(The faceoff circle remains one obvious point for improvement. Kadri has dipped to 42 per cent on the draw, the fifth-worst mark of any regular.)
And if anything, his experience as the Leafs top centre – which will come to an end as soon as Bozak returns from injured reserve on Dec. 29 – should prove beneficial as a learning experience, a bar for Kadri to aspire to reach someday.
“You just learn to be more responsible,” he said. “They rely on you more and I feel like that's making me a better player. Especially with how young I am, I'm being able to develop with the best of the best and I think really that's the most important thing.”