TORONTO — When Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri was in the midst of recording just two points over a 20-game stretch earlier this season — including 12 straight outings where he was held entirely off the scoresheet — his head coach refused to call it a slump.
That opinion hasn't changed.
"I didn't know he had a slump," Mike Babcock quipped earlier this week. "I kept hearing about the slump, and he'd be playing against the best players and we'd win and they'd get no goals.
"So to me, that's what he's paid to do right there. He's paid to make sure that someone else can win the matchup in the lineup, and then the rest of it is a bonus."
Whatever you want to call those seven-plus weeks between Dec. 2 and Jan. 22, Kadri's production is back close to its 2016-17 levels with 13 goals and 10 assists in the 22 games since. That's second only to Mitch Marner (27 points) on the team over that span.
"I kept things the same," Kadri said of what helped him push through his offensive dry spell. "Throughout the course of the season there's going to be highs and lows, and times when you struggle.
"(I) tried to be the best teammate I could be and stayed positive. At the end of the day I just want to contribute in any way, shape or form."
The Leafs were just 9-9-4 during his "slump" — Kadri missed two games with an upper-body injury — and are 16-4-2 since.
That turnaround, of course, isn't all Kadri. But getting more than a point a game over an extended period of time from a player usually deployed in a checking role at even strength is a huge plus.
The 27-year-old starts just 38 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone. That means he's usually thrown out in defensive situations, often against one of the other team's top lines.
"I feel that if I'm not scoring goals necessarily, I'm not useless to the hockey team," Kadri said. "There's other ways I can contribute."
The London, Ont., native has 27 goals and 21 assists in 69 games this year as the Leafs continue their march towards the playoffs with a visit from the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. He's on pace to come close to matching the career-high 32 goals he put up last season and could also get close to his assist total from 2016-17 (29 in 82 games).
Kadri is tied with James van Riemsdyk for the team lead with nine power-play goals — 15 of his 48 points have come with the man advantage — but it's the two-way game where he gets under opponents' skin that makes him most effective.
"It's real clear for me," Babcock said. "If Naz wants to be a scorer, he's a middle-of-the-road scorer in the National Hockey League.
"If he wants to be a checking centre who's nasty and scores, then he's an upper-echelon player."
While staying responsible in his own zone, Kadri has six goals in his last eight games to coincide with centre Auston Matthews' absence because of a shoulder injury.
"I felt the need, and I know my teammates did as well, to try to step up to the plate," Kadri said. "Certainly a time for other people to step up and play important roles."
But the overall role he now occupies on a team where most of the star players are in their early 20s was very much up in air three years ago.
Kadri was suspended by interim coach Peter Horachek in March 2015 after showing up late for a Sunday morning meeting.
Embarrassed by the situation, Kadri found himself at a crossroads. He could continue down the same path or rededicate himself in hopes of becoming a leader and part of the solution for a franchise in transition.
He chose the latter and hasn't looked back.
"This is exactly what I wanted from myself — to be here in this position and be able to grow from that," said Kadri, who signed a six-year, US$27-million contract extension in April 2016. "I don't regret any of that because I really do feel like it made me a better person and a better player. Being able to pave the way and know how things go, be able to guide players that come into the organization.
"That was a purpose for me. I had a great support system along the way. At that point I just had to make a decision, and I made the right one."
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