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Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Tyler Bozak, left, William Nylander and forward Nazem Kadri celebrate a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Tyler Bozak, left, William Nylander and forward Nazem Kadri celebrate a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Nazem Kadri inspires mixed feelings, but the Maple Leafs need him Add to ...

It’s always something with Nazem Kadri.

Early in the year, when the points weren’t there – he had nine in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ugly first 26 games – it was his lack of production that brought on the critics.

In midseason, it was the high praise Kadri was getting from coach Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello, praise that was interpreted as disingenuous – aimed only at increasing his trade value – by naysayers.

Now, even after a four-point game in a win over Anaheim last week – a game in which he was matched against Ryan Getzlaf and scored the overtime winner – it’s about being a diver.

It’s true. That’s what will dominate panels, call-in shows and social media this week when it comes to Kadri, especially after officials went out of their way to not call infractions on the Leafs centre during Saturday’s loss to Boston.

Some of the criticism is simply because Kadri will never be what people hoped when he was picked seventh overall in 2009. He won’t be a point-a-game player. He won’t be a dominating No. 1 centre. He also won’t be a calm, quiet Steve Yzerman type, as he has big ideas and a big personality, on the ice and off.

Not everyone loves Kadri. But the Leafs still need him.

Only a few games into the season, Babcock began to give Kadri his toughest assignments. The list of centres he has faced the most is a murderers’ row of talent: John Tavares is his most frequent matchup, followed by Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Tomas Plekanec, Evgeni Malkin, Steve Stamkos and Nathan MacKinnon.

It’s the same story with defencemen. Zdeno Chara, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman are among Kadri’s most frequent opponents.

Contrast that with who he has played with. His top wingers have been Leo Komarov (72 per cent of the time) and Michael Grabner (34 per cent). His top defence pair has been the often overmatched duo of Matt Hunwick and Morgan Rielly.

Against some of the best players in the NHL.

There are two possibilities for why that’s happened. Either it was part of a top-secret grand plan to tank and finish low in the standings. Or Babcock saw, early on, that the best chance his team had was to put Kadri in a bigger, and more difficult, role than he has ever had.

I’m inclined, after listening to Babcock compliment Kadri all season, to believe it’s Option Two.

“Naz is a guy I think is playing better all the time,” Babcock said. “It’s about winning. It has nothing to do with points you get individually. It’s about winning and learning how to play right.

“Naz is I think a real good player who has a chance become a [better] player with a good off-season. Get a lot stronger, work on his shot. He gets so many chances, the more he does that, the better off he’ll be … “Naz is a brave guy. He’s nasty to play against. Competes hard. He wants to do it right. Knows how to play in his own zone now. Knows how to play in the neutral zone. Knowing [when] the game’s on the line [what to do]. He doesn’t back [down] to anybody. I think a big part of playing against good players is being mean enough to do it and compete hard enough to do it. And he does that.”

Does that sound like a player who isn’t in this coach’s plans?

If you look closely at who Kadri has played against and who he has played with, his modest production (just under a 50-point pace) makes more sense. The Leafs should have been filled in during those minutes all season. Instead, with Kadri on the ice, they had 52 per cent of the quality scoring chances and 53 per cent of the puck possession. They were outscored, but they were competitive.

The reality is Babcock needs someone to eat those tough minutes again next season. Unless the Leafs can sign Stamkos – a long shot at this point – or win the draft lottery and land Auston Matthews, who will fill that role?

This isn’t a team drowning in quality centres. Tyler Bozak has likely had the best season of his career (minus the injury) because he was in more suitable minutes under Babcock. William Nylander likely looks more like an NHLer than he would otherwise because he has faced mostly third and fourth lines.

Even if the Leafs get Matthews – and their chances of that are dropping into single digits with every game they win or the Oilers lose – would they really want to throw the just-turned-19-year-old to the Bergerons and Kopitars right away?

Someone needs to play there, and Kadri – who turns 26 in the fall – makes the most sense, especially with the evidence that he is growing into the role. “He’s done whatever I’ve asked,” Babcock said recently.

Kadri needs a new contract and wants to stay in Toronto. He also wants more term this time, after off-ice questions led to a one-year deal last summer. Every year on a contract beyond next season will be a year of unrestricted free agency, however, and those are costly. The stakes for him to remain a Leaf are close to $5-million a year until at least 2019.

But if you look at what’s available in free agency, beyond Stamkos, and you look at what else the Leafs have on their roster, it’s clear no one can do what Kadri has for this team this season.

On a contending team, Kadri is better suited to a second-line role, but the Leafs need him for the near future.

And maybe beyond, if Babcock continues to like what he sees.

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