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Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Joffrey Lupul, left, celebrates his goal with centre Nazem Kadri during first period NHL action against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Joffrey Lupul, left, celebrates his goal with centre Nazem Kadri during first period NHL action against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Maple Leafs 4, Lightning 2

Kadri impresses again as Leafs snap skid with convincing win over Bolts Add to ...

He was taking faceoffs – and winning more than his fair share – against Steven Stamkos.

He was hitting and going to the net and, most impressively, making the type of world-class passing plays and dekes that he is quickly becoming known for around the league.

He was the game’s first star, was praised for his two-way game by his old-school coach – and it was all well-earned.

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After 30 games, Nazem Kadri’s success with the Toronto Maple Leafs is looking less and less like a fluke every game.

And the question is just how high the 22-year-old’s ceiling will now be.

Far from a young player trying to find a third-line niche as many believed he would be, Kadri has surprisingly emerged as one of the Leafs best players in his first full NHL season, with Wednesday night’s 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning a perfect example of his direct impact on games.

Leafs coach Randy Carlyle matched Kadri up against Lightning stars Stamkos and Marty St. Louis for the bulk of his 16 minutes of ice time, and every time he was on the ice, Toronto often had the puck.

That puck possession is something that’s been evident all year for Kadri, too, both on the ice and in every advanced statistic, many of which he leads the team in.

His numbers in the not-so-advanced ones are mighty impressive, too, as he picked up three assists before Wednesday’s game was 28 minutes old, giving him 30 points in 30 games – the majority of which have come at even strength and with a clunker of a linemate by his side.

It’s the type of production teams expect from their $7-million men, not their green youngsters, but that’s the kind of year it has been.

“The one thing that we’re going to do is we’re going to test Kadri against the best players,” Carlyle said of Kadri facing Stamkos and Co. all night. “He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him.”

“That’s what I’ve wanted from Day 1,” Kadri explained after the game. “I wanted to be a reliable guy who can be counted on offensively, too. I think Randy’s starting to understand that I’m always working hard every single day to make myself a better player and a better all-around player for this team. I want to be a guy that can do everything, not just one-dimensional.”

Even if there was only the one dimension, that alone would be rather impressive. Consider for one that Kadri is tied for 13th in league scoring despite averaging 15 and a half minutes in ice time a night – a number that is quickly rising.

Even more impressively, he is in the top 10 in even strength points, bettering Phil Kessel and the rest of his more highly heralded teammates by six points or more.

Not to mention outpointing stars like the Sedins, Anze Kopitar and many, many others.  

With Joffrey Lupul back from a broken arm after missing two months, Kadri also finally has an experienced offensive star on his line – not Colton Orr or Leo Komarov – and, as a result, suddenly looks not far from that territory himself.

Playing on a new-look line with Nikolai Kulemin, Kadri first connected with Lupul on the game’s opening goal, a tic-tac-toe play from blueline to goal line for Lupul’s third goal in two games since returning to the lineup.

(Lupul incidentally could miss a game or two due to a suspension if his hit to the head of Victor Hedman catches the eye of NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.)

The Leafs then potted three more during a seven-minute span in the second period to effectively take the game before the midway point, with Kadri setting up Dion Phaneuf and Kulemin for the second and fourth goals as Lightning starter Mathieu Garon was chased from the net.

Midway through the third and with his team up 4-1, Kadri added an exclamation point when he danced around a defender and was hauled to the ice, drawing his 18 penalty of the year – another highly undervalued statistic he sits second in the NHL in.

But the biggest revelation in Kadri’s game hasn’t even been in the offensive end. For all of former coach Ron Wilson’s talk of his deficiencies in previous seasons, Kadri has rarely been caught making a terrible turnover or cheating on a play.

He was even used by Randy Carlyle at the end of Wednesday’s game with Tampa pressing, something unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

“The biggest emergence of Nazem Kadri is where and when in the game to try and use the skill moves,” Carlyle said. “He’s always good defensively. When he played in the AHL and 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.”

Credit either the tremendous work by Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins – who benched Kadri in the AHL early on – the player himself (or both) for the transformation, but beyond anything else that happens this season, his development into a potential superstar will likely wind up being the story of Toronto’s year.

For long stretches of his time in the minors, Kadri became a focal point for the wrong reasons, either because he was unfairly overhyped as the lone high pick the franchise held onto or because the youngster was simply still adapting to the pro game.

Basically a local kid, being from London, Ont., Kadri heard a lot of it  – how could he not? – and said it only fuelled his desire to succeed.

“I knew I could provide this type of offence and it was just a matter of when,” Kadri said. “I worked my butt off the last three years to put myself in this position and I know for a fact a lot of people didn’t think I could do it which made me push even harder.”

“It shows you the fire and the competitiveness that he has inside of him,” Carlyle said. “That’s really what everyone has learned from being around the kid. You can go up one side of him and down the other on his deficiencies, but in the end, he’s going to go back out there and prove you wrong. That’s a special skill. He does it in his own way. You’ve got to give the kid credit.”

The lesson for Toronto – the city’s media and fans, not the organization – is there’s little wrong with a young player finding his game in the minors rather than the bigs, especially an undersized centre with Kadri’s particular skillset.

At this point, there’s only one real problem with his sudden emergence.  

He is about to get a great deal more expensive in a hurry, with his second contract – due in a few months’ time – growing by the game.

But that’s the sort of worry the Leafs could use more of these days.

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