They are Nos. 1 and (tied for) 2 in scoring for the Toronto Maple Leafs, an organization long derided for not developing high-end young prospects.
Nazem Kadri, with six points in six games, and Matt Frattin, with five in just three.
But what’s made the duo’s contributions even more surprising is that they’ve come in negligible ice time, with head coach Randy Carlyle keeping Kadri on the bench in the season’s early going, and sending Frattin to the minors out of training camp.
Last Tuesday in Buffalo, however, may have had their coming out party. Kadri, 22, and Frattin, 25, used the chemistry they’ve developed playing the last season and half with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to put two goals and an assist on the scoresheet.
They finally won their coach over, too.
Kadri played nearly 18 minutes against the Sabres; Frattin 16, including getting the last shift in overtime, when he made something out of nothing and scored the winner with less than two seconds to play.
In hindsight, there is an argument to be made that both should have had a bigger role to begin with, given they’ve been playing and producing every night in the minors.
But six games into what will likely be their first full NHL season together, Kadri and Frattin have found their opening with a couple veterans sitting out hurt.
“That’s where the majority of the guys start and then they earn their ice time,” Frattin said of his spot on the third line. “It’s the thing you’ve got to do, unless you’re a gifted guy, one of the select few around the league. Other than that, you’ve got to earn your stripes each year.”
Frattin learned a little about that when he received what he called a “wake-up call” two weeks ago. Coming off major knee surgery, he excelled at the start the 2012-13 AHL season – with eight goals in his first 11 games – but his play had tailed off.
Then, after six days of a shotgun NHL training camp under a new coach, Frattin failed to impress.
He wasn’t playing the body, Carlyle said. And, despite getting 56 games with the Leafs last season, he wasn’t making the team.
“When we sent him down, we told him he was an NHL player playing in the American Hockey League,” Carlyle explained. “But the issue was that in the week that he had with us, he didn’t demonstrate things that we thought were his strengths. We just made the decision that he didn’t earn the opportunity.”
“He’s open,” Frattin said of his relationship with Carlyle.
“If you have a question about what role you’re supposed to have, you can go ask him and he’s going to tell you straight up and be honest about it. You’ve just got to go out there and do it.”
Unlike Kadri, a 2009 first-round draft pick who has had to deal with plenty of expectations, Frattin is a much different story as a late-blooming fourth-rounder (2007).
Even though he’s 25, and Tuesday’s game was just his 60th in the NHL, he appears to have the foundation to be at minimum a productive third-line player.
Frattin finished his U.S. college hockey career with an incredible 60-point season (36 goals in 44 games), and whenever he has played in the minors, he has proven to be too good for that league. (Including playoffs, he has 33 goals in 57 AHL games.)
Carlyle watched a lot of Marlies games during the recent NHL lockout and noted that, heading into camp, he had wanted to try the Kadri-Frattin combination. “That was kind of a plan,” the coach said.
It didn’t work out that way immediately, but with Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur now out, the two close friends are now set to play together for a while.
The organization’s hope is that what is becoming a capable third line for the Leafs could, down the road, evolve into a dependable second line.
“We’ve been going through it together,” Kadri said of their development from prospects to pros.
“Now, we’re here to play and hopefully to stay.
“We’re all learning to become more and more responsible. You can see with Randy increasing our minutes game by game, I think it shows a lot of faith and a lot of belief in us. That just gives you the most confidence.”