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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri spent most of his career in the minor leagues before his big season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs play the Habs Saturday. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri spent most of his career in the minor leagues before his big season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs play the Habs Saturday. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Leafs Beat

Leafs’ Nazem Kadri: One lucky man Add to ...

It was a rare day off in their season and a large group of Toronto Marlies had gathered at Nazem Kadri’s spacious downtown condo to hang out and watch television together.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top prospect, however, had other plans.

“Naz just came flying out of his room in full mini-stick goalie gear,” said defenceman Mike Kostka, Kadri’s teammate with the Marlies during the NHL lockout and now with the Leafs, “and he had two sets of nets and the whole thing.

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“Guys came over thinking they were just going to watch TV. Instead, they ended up having a big tournament. That just speaks to the inner kid in Naz. He just likes to have fun.”

Few young players have had more fun than Kadri this season.

After spending most of the past 21/2 years in the minor leagues, the 22-year-old centre from London, Ont., has surprised the hockey world in his first full season with the Leafs, becoming one of the NHL’s leading scorers with 40 points in 40 games entering Saturday night’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens.

His spirited play has made him an instant fan favourite, and injected excitement into a Leafs team that is on target to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Numbers tell the interesting story of Kadri’s season, and help explain things. But luck has played a large role. He has been remarkably fortunate with “the hockey gods” – as coach Randy Carlyle has been known to describe it. The hockey gods are being especially generous to the player teammates think of “like a little brother.”

As luck would have it, Kadri got off to a fast start, scoring his way onto the Leafs roster with a hat trick in a training camp scrimmage, setting him up for a key role to start the year.

The pucks have rarely stopped going in since, whether they’ve been off Kadri’s stick or his linemates, with opposition goaltenders posting an abysmal .847 save percentage when he has been on the ice at even strength.

That number means that the Leafs have had a 15.3-per-cent shooting percentage whenever Kadri has played, nearly double the league average (7.91 per cent) and the highest of any forward to have played 30 games in the past six seasons.

By comparison, the average shooting percentage when Sidney Crosby, the world’s top player, has been on the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins in those years has been closer to 12.5 per cent – roughly 20-per-cent less than Kadri.

Meanwhile, Phil Kessel, the Leafs’ top scorer the past three seasons, has registered an average of about 8.6 per cent, even while scoring at least 30 goals each year.

Much of the work with hockey’s budding advanced statistics over the past few years has centred on these shooting and save percentages. They are considered some of the most volatile figures in the game because they often involve a high degree of randomness – or luck – from one season to another.

A player could shoot a puck in the same fashion, from the same location, time and again in a game with a different result each time. One shot might hit three skates and go in. Another may be an easy save for the goaltender.

That’s why players like Kessel are fond of saying they’re “not getting the bounces” when they’re in a slump. Scorers intuitively know that part of what determines whether they hit the back of the net is simply out of their hands.

With many top players on the ice for 600 or more shots a season, even as little as a 3-per-cent decline in their on-ice shooting percentage can mean they are on the ice for 20 fewer goals in an 82-game season.

And that means fewer goals and assists for them individually.

While someone such as Crosby has the talent to boost his team’s scoring prowess consistently by 50 or 60 per cent above average, the majority of players are unable to do so for more than random bursts of 40 or 50 games. They commonly see their point totals drop off, as the percentages do.

That’s why, just as young Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle posted nearly a point-a-game while on the ice for a fortuitous 12.8-per-cent shooting percentage last season, many statisticians believe Kadri’s point-a-game pace is as unsustainable as they come.

“It’s unreasonable to expect this to continue,” said Eric Tulsky, a Harvard graduate whose company, TZ Quantitative Analytics, provides analysis for multiple NHL teams. “Unless we believe Kadri is by far the best player of this era, we have to assume that in the long run he won’t see as many shots go in and his point scoring rate will drop sharply – perhaps by 40 to 50 per cent.”

As Eberle knows, one lucky season can set unrealistic expectations that are nearly impossible to follow. After scoring 34 goals and 76 points in 78 games last season in a breakthrough year, he was rewarded with a six-year, $36-million contract that makes the 22-year-old one of the highest-paid young players in the game.

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