There is a golden opportunity brewing for Nazem Kadri, even if it may not last more than a few weeks.
After playing on a mishmash of lines with just about every winger in the organization in his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kadri is finally now pencilled in on the big one, centring two point-a-game wingers in Phil Kessel and James van Riemdsyk.
As has been the case in the past, it took an injury to Tyler Bozak for that to happen, but this could be the 23-year-old's best sustained chance yet to prove he can play more of a starring role in his second full season in the NHL.
All Kadri needs to do is more of what he did on Saturday in an impressive 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With Bozak a late scratch with a lower body injury, Kadri and fellow centre Dave Bolland got the big assignments heading in. Kadri was matched against the Penguins' former Hart Trophy winner, Evgeni Malkin; Bolland lined up against the NHL's top player, Sidney Crosby. The end result was two goals for Bolland and the game winner for Kadri, who was throwing his small frame around and creating open ice for his teammates throughout the night.
Unlike Bozak, who works more in straight lines, Kadri was unpredictable and difficult to contain, adding an element of creativity that Toronto's top line has lacked on some nights this season.
All of his teammates saw it.
"Nazzy's an all-around player," Bolland said. "You see his skill, the way he handles that puck – he's got great skills out there. The way he plays, he's going to be a top-end player in this league."
"Nazzy played hard," added coach Randy Carlyle. "Made some plays through the neutral ice."
Kadri, meanwhile, was thrilled to play nearly 20 minutes (19:46) for only the second time this season and ninth time in his young career.
"It's such a difference," Kadri said of getting about 20 per cent more ice time than he is used to. "You're out there more; you get more opportunities … Especially for a player like myself, the first few shifts, once you get your feet under you, start touching the puck, getting feels [for the game], then you start to feel good about yourself and the rest of the game comes easier."
To date, however, the Leafs have been rather reluctant to play Kadri with Kessel on a regular basis.
Kadri has spent only about 15 per cent of his ice time with the team's top scorer – a mere 230 even strength minutes over 110 games before Saturday night – in large part because Carlyle trusts the defensive acumen of Bozak more.
But those brief glimpses of Kadri and Kessel together have shown some remarkable chemistry. Consider the fact that, last season at even strength, they outscored the opposition 2-to-1 in their 65 minutes on the same line.
Then there was Kadri's play in the first round of the postseason. With Bozak out with a triceps tear for Games 6 and 7 against the Boston Bruins, it was Kadri and Kessel who were factors on four key goals in the series' final two games.
The Leafs ultimately frittered that away late in the third period of the final game with Kadri on the bench, but after all seven playoff games, he and Kessel had spent 45 minutes on the ice together at even strength and were on the ice for five goals for and none against.
At the very least, what the series showed was that in situations where Toronto needs a goal, or on the power play, Kadri deserves to play with the team's top offensive player. They may not be world-beaters defensively, but with the Bozak-Kessel combination being outshot heavily much of this season (97-64 overall at even strength so far), rethinking how the Leafs deploy their centres is a must in order to continue to beat good teams like the Penguins.
Bolland can clearly handle the tough defensive assignments; why shouldn't Kadri get the offensive ones?
"I've been working hard trying to earn his trust," Kadri said of Carlyle, who deserves credit for recognizing at the start of last season that Kadri would be much more effective at centre than on the wing. "I want to be one of those guys Randy and this team can count on and that's not just scoring goals."
For the next couple of weeks at least, it appears he will get that chance. The Leafs put Bozak on injured reserve on Sunday morning, meaning he will miss at least the team's three-game road swing through Western Canada.
That gives the Leafs time to really experiment down the middle, a position that has been an organizational weak point for years, but which may now be ready for a leap forward with Bolland and Kadri both excelling early on.
"It's an important position – I mean, it's pretty much you're the computer for all the players around you," Kadri explained of his role. "You've got to call your plays and make sure everyone's on the same page. Management's done a great job of getting the right pieces; that's why we've been able to get some wins."
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