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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri reacts after scoring his second goal of the season while playing against the Buffalo Sabres during third period NHL action in Toronto on Monday, January 21, 2013. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri reacts after scoring his second goal of the season while playing against the Buffalo Sabres during third period NHL action in Toronto on Monday, January 21, 2013. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kadri living ‘the dream’ with Maple Leafs Add to ...

Phil Kessel made the rare postgame comment via social media late Monday night, tweeting out the two cryptic words from his Android mobile phone as the Toronto Maple Leafs sat waiting for their flight out of Philadelphia after a 4-2 win over the Flyers.

“The dream,” the message read.

No one had to explain its significance to his teammates or fans.

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“Na-zeem the Dream, that’s a pretty cool nickname,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, explaining the flashy handle for teammate Nazem Kadri. “It works for us. I asked him last night about who gave it to him and he didn’t really know. They just started calling him it and it stuck.”

“He loves that,” Kadri said of Phaneuf. “I don’t think he even calls me anything else really.”

The origins of “The Dream” come back to the public address announcers around the league, many of whom mispronounce Kadri’s Arabic first name by calling him Na-zeem instead of Na-zihm, much to the 22-year-old’s chagrin and the delight of his chuckling teammates.

If Kadri keeps up his torrid pace, however, it won’t be long until everyone league-wide knows exactly how to say his name.

After a big night in Philadelphia with two pretty assists, Kadri leads the Leafs in scoring with five goals and 12 assists for what would be a 70-point pace over a full 82-game season. Prior to Tuesday’s action, that had him tied for 24th in NHL scoring with superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Henrik Sedin.

It’s the kind of production the Maple Leafs were hoping for when they selected the London, Ont., native seventh overall 3 1/2 years ago, but Kadri has had a little bit of a bumpy ride.

There have been benchings – even in the minors – and more headlines in Toronto than likely any seventh pick in NHL history.

A small, skilled player who had plenty to learn about the pro game when he left junior in 2010, Kadri became a lightning rod, was called out in the media by his coach and was deemed a bust by some even before many quality prospects generally make it out of the AHL.

“It was tough on me for a little bit,” Kadri admitted. “I really don’t think a lot of other people could have been under the scrutiny and under the pressure and have that mental toughness to prevail.”

In the meantime, Kadri quietly began to produce in the minors, recording 107 points in 119 AHL games while learning the finer points of the defensive game from Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins.

Now in the final year of his entry level contract, Kadri is indisputably an NHL regular, who has put up first-line production despite getting third-line minutes at even strength and only second-unit power-play duty.

According to advanced NHL statistics website behindthenet.ca, on a per-minute basis, he also leads the league in first assists, is top 10 in penalties drawn and top 15 in points.

Leafs coach Randy Carlyle appears happy with Kadri’s progress at the other end of the ice, too, although he cautions the evolution remains ongoing.

“With Nazzy, it’s when he tries to make some of those razzle-dazzle plays that are the things that are going to upset you,” Carlyle said. “The one thing about the maturity of a young player like Nazzy is knowing when and where and how often you try the high-risk, high-reward plays.”

“I think Naz has really grown,” Phaneuf added. “You can just see his maturity as a player and as a guy.”

Phaneuf then pointed to Kadri’s willingness to fight 6-foot-6 Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman last week, as an example of his tenacity, something that is a must for a smaller centre in the league.

“He’s got a lot of character,” Phaneuf said.

“He sometimes gets categorized like he’s 25 years old and time’s running out,” linemate Clarke MacArthur said. “He’s just a young kid still.”

As for charges in the past that Kadri has been overconfident or too cocky for his own good, he explained Tuesday he believes that’s been part of what’s helped him get to where he is today.

That confidence helped him survive and thrive when few believed he would get this far.

“I think regardless of what league you’re playing in, you’ve got to have that swagger and walk around like you can be the best player,” Kadri said. “If you don’t, really what’s the point?

“I mean you’ve got to have the confidence in your teammates and yourself to make the plays you want to because, in this league, if you hesitate when you make a play, chances are it’s not going to work. You’ve got to be sure in what you’re doing.”

“I’m not one to fold under the pressure. I like to rise to the occasion and make the most of my opportunities.”

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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