Nazem Kadri has been a constant threat early this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 22-year-old forward has registered a point in all of Toronto’s games and Thursday night recorded his first career multi-point contest (goal, assist) in the Leafs’ 7-4 home loss to the New York Islanders. Through four games, the native of London, Ont., is the club’s scoring leader with five points (three goals, two assists).
And he says he owes it all to Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle.
“Before I didn’t really get the impression that I was kind of wanted in the lineup or I really deserved the minutes that I may have gotten,” Kadri said following Friday’s practice. “With Randy it’s a whole different ballgame.
“He makes me feel like I belong here and I can be a big contributor here and I feel like that as well. As a young guy I just needed others to believe in me as well.”
Toronto selected the 6-foot, 185-pound Kadri seventh overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft. A gifted offensive performer in junior — he had 92 goals and 258 points in 242 career OHL games with Kitchener and London — Kadri played sporadically over three seasons under former Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
But Wilson was fired March 2, 2012 and replaced by Carlyle, a former Leafs defenceman who won a Stanley Cup as Anaheim’s head coach in 2006-07. Kadri impressed Carlyle enough to make Toronto’s roster out of training camp and hasn’t skipped a beat to start the season, having scored his three goals on just 11 shots (27.3 per cent).
“I’ve had streaks before . . .but I don’t think right off the start I’ve come out like this,” Kadri said.
He’s certainly on an impressive clip, considering last season Tampa Bay’s Steve Stamkos captured the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer with 60 markers. But it took Stamkos 303 shots to achieve that total, which translates to a 19.8 success ratio.
So can Kadri maintain his torrid pace?
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said with a chuckle.
Kadri said communication with his head coach is a big reason for his early success.
“He (Carlyle) explains everything he does, even if you don’t get the minutes you want there’s an explanation for it, a reason for it,” Kadri said. “And he’ll come tell you personally, it’s not beating around the bush sending someone else to come preach.
“I just like the communication.”
A dismal performance Thursday night certainly spoke volumes to Carlyle, who watched his team take a 3-1 first period lead, then fall apart against the Islanders to drop to 0-2 at home.
The expectation Friday was Carlyle might run the Leafs hard before their departure to New York to face the Rangers on Saturday. Instead, Carlyle opened practice with a light scrimmage where the players had to shoot from their unnatural side.
“We know what we were and we know we can be a lot better than what we were (Thursday night),” Carlyle said. “You know there are going to be nights that you’d like to have back . . . but you’ve got to get yourself ready for tomorrow.
“We’re going to be judged on our performance and how we play (Saturday night) and what our response is. We’ve laid the plan out and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to stay with it. We knew there wouldn’t be a season without adversity and we have to deal with it.”
What made Thursday’s performance so surprising was it came just a day after Toronto earned a solid 5-2 road win in Pittsburgh. But the Leafs’ power play was 0-5 against the Islanders, including 0-2 with a two-man advantage.
At home, the Leafs are just 1-of-12 on the power play, compared to 3-of-13 on the road. The good news for Toronto is they’re headed to New York, which could be a blessing in disguise as both of its wins this season have come away from the Air Canada Centre.
Kadri has been an important contributor on the power play, scoring twice. Trouble is, he and Tyler Bozak (also with two) account for all of Toronto’s power-play goals.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Kadri said when asked about why the power play has struggled. “We’ve been practising it a lot and I’m sure through the next few games at home it will start to click.
“The season just started, we still have a ways to go.”
But while Kadri has found the net, the same can’t be said for forward Phil Kessel. The 25-year-old American had a career-best 37 goals last season but has yet to score this season.
Carlyle said Toronto’s problems on the power play are contributing to Kessel’s goal-scoring drought.
“Power play is probably the biggest area where you expect those offensive players to provide more,” Carlyle said. “When your power play isn’t clicking on all cylinders, then it shows up in their statistics usually.”
But it’s not as if Kessel isn’t getting his chances. He has taken a team-high 20 shots and Carlyle said the veteran forward is making other contributions that don’t necessarily show up in the scoring stats.
“If things go dry you have to make sure you’re not a defensive liability,” Carlyle said. “You’re going to do some of the other little things that are going to help your teammates and provide them with opportunities to score goals.”
On Thursday night, Carlyle yanked starting goalie Ben Scrivens in the third period after he allowed five goals on 25 shots faced. It came after Scrivens had surrendered just three goals in his first two starts of the season.
James Reimer replaced Scrivens and stopped seven of the eight shots he faced. Conventional wisdom suggests Reimer should start against New York but Carlyle has always kept his goaltending plans to himself and remained coy Friday.
“Oh, you never know what I’m going to do,” he said, drawing loud laughter from the gathered media.