Nazem Kadri knocked off a bucket-list item last spring.
Eclipsing the 30-goal mark for the first time in his seven NHL seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs centre crossed over the threshold that separates the elite goal scorers from everyone else.
“It was always something that I wanted to do,” Kadri said in an interview last week at MasterCard Centre.
But what was most different about last season was that aiming to hit a certain scoring standard had slipped on his list of priorities. Instead, it was within his focus of transforming into the shutdown centre that Mike Babcock needed to run his system – and embracing the challenge of taking on the most difficult head-to-head matchups – where Kadri discovered what it would take to elevate into the next tier of scorer.
Following his career-defining campaign, where he learned that a commitment to the defensive end would open up the greatest opportunity in the attacking third, Kadri has returned this season as more accomplished, further validated, still supremely motivated, and more and more comfortable with the difficult assignments he tackles every night.
And now, we’re learning about what he’s capable of with a new set of objectives in his sights.
Kadri ranks behind only Auston Matthews in team scoring with 10 goals through the first 21 games. It has him flirting with a pace that would see him enter a whole new stratosphere altogether: 40 goals.
Reminded of his current projection, Kadri’s excitement shone through, admitting that it was “motivating” and “inspiring” to be off to such a tremendous start. But with the process – not individual benchmarks – drilled into his subconscious, Kadri made sure to not let his imagination run wild for too long.
“It’s not necessarily about how many goals you’re scoring or how many points you’re scoring; it’s how you can help your team win in certain ways,” he said, echoing his instruction. “I’m fortunate to be in a pretty important role, and my teammates rely on me and I rely on them.
Kadri can dream, though. And he does.
No longer uncertain about role like he may have been in the first handful of seasons that preceded the Babcock era in Toronto, Kadri aspires to raise his level enough to push the current assemblage of elite two-way pivots, led by the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews.
A recent addition to the bucket list, Kadri wants to earn consideration for the Selke Trophy – the honour awarded to the forward that best blends staunch defensive work with scoring touch.
“To even be in the conversation with those type of players is super encouraging for me,” Kadri said. “I know I’m still a little ways away, but there’s nothing wrong with setting a goal and trying to achieve it.”
Kadri’s challenge was formidable, and certainly not without risk. Toronto had pledged another six seasons to the veteran centre without knowing for certain that he could become the the reliable middle presence that could anchor the lineup.
But the ask to re-invent himself wasn’t without how-to instruction. The example of one of the best two-way forwards in the history of the game meant that Kadri wouldn’t have to go it alone.
“When Babs came over here he was showing me clips on clips on clips of Pavel Datsyuk, and the way he did things, and how good his stick was, and how great he was in the defensive zone. Obviously the scoring, the dangles, and the hands. But all that aside, he was good in his own end to and that’s what I respected the most.”
There have been doubts about Kadri within the public sphere, but the 27-year-old has not shared those concerns. He not only brims with self-belief, but maintains a firm grasp of how his view may contrast with the perception outside the Leafs room.
Asked if his starring performance in his head-to-head matchup with Connor McDavid – and the overtime goal he engineered from a battle with the Edmonton Oilers captain – was the moment when he realized he could thrive in the role assigned to him, Kadri said that he understood “right off the start” that he could do it. That was just the moment everyone else was convinced.
In many ways, this is the crux of it for Kadri, who gets a kick out of admitting that he loves to put critics “in their place.”
Their doubt is his tonic, and the fear of disappointing the people counting on him to succeed fuels his ambition.
An athlete that will allow his pride to get in the way of failure, pushing for what’s beyond easily attainable is his roadmap for success.
“Even if I can’t do something,” he admitted, “I won’t say I can’t.”
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports: