Kadri continues to amaze, confound and confuse

Nazem Kadri always seems to play best when he’s under siege. He’s going to have to shed that characteristic if he wants the Toronto Maple Leafs to show enough faith in him to offer him a long-term contract.

There’s a well-documented scene in the third episode of this year’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic in which Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach Greg Cronin asks the players whether they are a friend or enemy of complacency. Cronin singles out a bewildered Nazem Kadri and asks him the question, to which the rather confused Kadri replies, “Friend?”

That was rather unfortunate. But there’s also some truth to it, no? And that is why the Maple Leafs will have to think long and swallow hard before extending Kadri’s contract, something they can do this summer. Kadri has one more year remaining on his bridge deal that pays him $2.9 million. Do the Leafs extend him for eight years and lock him up long-term? Given the body of work so far, that would be an extremely risky proposition.

It’s not that Kadri is a friend of complacency, it’s just that it seems to find him. Offering him a long-term deal might be a move the Leafs would regret, since it seems – at this stage of his career anyway – that this young man plays better the less security and comfort he has. To wit: after scoring two goals in the Leafs 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday night, Kadri is on a run of three goals and nine points in his past seven games. That run coincides with rumors that began circulating that he was on the trade block.

Even Kadri himself admits he’s been known to be a better player when he plays on the edge.

“I’m always the type of person to play when everyone doesn’t think that highly of you,” Kadri said. “That’s certainly something I want to be remembered for. Everyone hops all over me and I start playing well. I think we should just cut that out and just keep playing well.”

Actually, the game against the Lightning provided a microcosm of both the good and not-so-good when it comes to Kadri. On his first goal of the evening, he jumped on a Tampa turnover and fired a high, hard wrist shot that not many goaltenders in the NHL could stop. On his second, he took a pass from Joffrey Lupul in front and displayed a dirty set of mitts in tight. Pure, unadulterated skill that probably no other player on the Leafs roster would be capable of displaying. But then the Lightning’s second goal to tie the game came largely because Kadri wasn’t nearly hard enough on the puck in the corner and lost a battle to Ondrej Palat.

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So what to do with Kadri? Well, fortunately for the Leafs, they have another season to see whether or not Kadri can develop any long-term consistency to his game. One person in the press box Tuesday night compared Kadri to Mike Ribeiro, saying the skill is definitely there, but the real question is whether or not you can win with him. The only problem is the person making the comparison was an employee of the Maple Leafs.

For his part, Kadri has never lacked in confidence. That’s a good thing. Now if he could only get a comfort level and continue to produce. “I know I can help this team win,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

THE STAMKOS EFFECT: There has been a lot of debate over how many NHL games Steven Stamkos should play before going to the Olympics. As far as this corner is concerned, it’s a moot point. Stamkos is an elite player who would probably need about a period-and-a-half to find his game.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper agrees. Even though his is just one voice in the organization, he wouldn’t have a problem if Stamkos’ first game back is also Canada’s first game in Sochi, which is scheduled for Feb. 13 against Austria.

“He has to play his first game at some point,” Cooper said. “If it were in the Olympics, it would be with lots of good players around him on a bigger ice surface where hitting probably isn’t as prevalent because it is the Olympic sheet. It might make it easier for him to play his first game over there. For me, personally, I’d have no problem with that.”