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Nazem Kadri scores the game-winning goal against the Oilers on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nazem Kadri scores the game-winning goal against the Oilers on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Nazem Kadri is the Maple Leafs’ surprising shutdown star Add to ...

When the doors slid open at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility on Monday afternoon, the media horde headed in one familiar direction: to Nazem Kadri’s dressing-room stall.

That’s not new. Kadri has always been a destination player for the cameras. This time, it was for a controversial hit on Vancouver Canucks star Daniel Sedin. At other times, it has been because he scored a goal or because he was a high draft pick or simply because he is never afraid to speak his mind.

Lately, however, Kadri has been getting attention for a different reason: for taking on the NHL’s best players and coming out ahead.

The Leafs are on a three-game winning streak and were in a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference prior to Monday’s games. Twelve games into the season, they’re on pace for 89 points – which would be a 20-point improvement over last year’s last-place campaign.

While Toronto’s seven rookies have earned a lot of the attention in the early going for driving that rise, Kadri has been a big part of the success too. During the recent streak, he has eaten the toughest minutes – against Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and the Sedins with Edmonton, Buffalo and Vancouver – scored three goals and been a plus player.

On the year, Kadri has been a strong possession player (53 per cent) and on the right side of the scoring-chance count at even strength (67-64), despite starting many of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Coach Mike Babcock believes that shutdown role suits Kadri. “It appears when he has a job, he’s better and more focused,” Babcock said.

It also frees up rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner to face weaker players and pile up points, which they have had no trouble doing.

“Definitely,” Matthews said. “I mean everybody – especially in that game [against McDavid last week] – was so focused on him. We wanted that matchup. Naz did an unbelievable job and ended up scoring two goals.”

And being a bit of a pest to the game’s best comes naturally.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Kadri said. “Obviously I’m a pretty competitive person so I don’t want to come out of the wrong end of that matchup. So I’m going to do everything I can to do my job and help the team win.”

It’s early, but Kadri is on pace for a career year. He’s tracking to better 60 points without an offensive dynamo on his line, playing mostly with Leo Komarov, Connor Brown and current Marlie Milan Michalek.

This wasn’t really what anyone expected when Kadri was drafted seventh over all seven years ago, when he became one of only two top-10 Leafs picks in a prospect-bereft 13-year stretch for the franchise (the other being Luke Schenn).

At first, Kadri underwhelmed because he was deemed too small. Then coaches took issue with his attitude and defensive play. He never seemed a particularly good skater or shooter or to possess any of the elements that would make him a star. Without many saviours to turn to and the Leafs struggling, Kadri seemed destined to disappoint in Toronto.

Under Babcock, however, the role he plays and the narrative around him has shifted. In April, the Leafs made a six-year commitment on a new contract. Instead of disappointing, he is excelling – even if he never becomes one of the league’s leading scorers.

The growth in Kadri’s game has come in stages. It took years for him to get stronger, to the point now where he is noticeably solid – a legitimate 195 pounds. It took years for him to find focus, something that led to a suspension for a partying problem in March, 2015.

Now, he has become something of a been-through-everything role model for the Leafs kids, who are watching what he does and learning. For example, Matthews said recently that what he admires most is Kadri’s passion to play every night.

According to James van Riemsdyk, Kadri’s frequent linemate last year, what allows him to exasperate stars like McDavid is something different.

“It’s because he’s so strong on the puck,” van Riemsdyk explained. “When you have the puck more, it frustrates the top-end players on the other team. That’s what makes him so effective in that role.

“Strong on the puck is all about your edges. You can be little and strong on the puck. You look at other guys around the league like Pat Kane, Johnny Gaudreau – they’re all strong on the puck just because their edges are so good. Naz is another guy in that category. He can make plays in tight areas and get himself out of tough position just because he’s so good on his edges.”

That’s what makes him a good possession player and that makes him a match for Babcock’s push-the-puck system, which has propelled the Leafs to seventh in the NHL (53.2 per cent) in that key category.

Babcock said he has been happy with what he has seen in Kadri, which has been a rarity for Leafs coaches. But he also sees a next level, and he sees a 26-year-old player committed to getting there.

“He’s got a lot of growth and development yet in front of him,” Babcock said. “He’s getting better.”

Seven years in, Kadri has become a unique piece that finally fits with what the Leafs are building.

“I’m not here just to kind of be a role player,” he said. “I want to help this team win and I want to do everything I can to help these guys win and help the young kids.”

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