While Nazem Kadri has come under scrutiny in Toronto since the day he was drafted, I know this much: the young man has game, and he is not even in his prime hockey playing years yet.
Let’s go over what I like (and I’m sure I’m not alone) about his game: he has outstanding on-ice vision. He can see the play developing, and knows how to find those ‘seams’—somewhat like a cagey football receiver. I'm referring to those empty areas where a gifted offensive player can be so effective. He goes to those spots and suddenly he becomes very, very dangerous. Similarly, he can lead linemates with passes and find them in good spots where they have the optimum opportunity for a good shot on goal. He also has those magic hands that Don Cherry likes to talk about, and can skate well enough while flashing an arsenal of subtle moves to make many NHL defensemen back off just enough to allow him the time and space to make plays. And I like that he plays physically and with a bit of an edge.
He can no doubt become a solid, high-end center/forward in the NHL.
He can no doubt become a solid, high-end center/forward in the NHL.
On the other side of the coin, I’m not typically a fan of guys who go over that edge in their play— and then rely on others to clean up their over-zealousness. I may be the only Leaf fan who sees it (or at least that doesn’t like it), but it seems to me that the young forward makes dangerous hits at times when opposing players are in a vulnerable position. There was a recent game where I counted three separate occasions when he did just that. At best, they were borderline hits.
Kadri is not a big centre, and I recognize that he needs to create space for himself out there to survive and thrive. I like tough, physical play, but I'd also like to see him stay in the "tough but clean" category of player.
Statistically, I know Kadri has not quite put up the kind of numbers so far this year that he did in the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 NHL season—though three assists in the last two Leaf games, including a pair against the Habs Saturday night, suggests he is ready to take off again. Yes, he is a minus player at this stage of the current season (a minus 10, I believe) but a lot of young, offensively oriented players come to the NHL and need work on their defensive game. So much of that (playing good defensive hockey) has to do with awareness and will—and simply paying attention to that element of your game. I’ve seen Kadri make good plays in his own zone and he has a boatload of hockey awareness. I’m sure that it will click in soon that, to be the overall player he wants to be seen as (and to make the kind of money he will one day be seeking) he simply needs to put the same effort into that aspect of his game as he does on the fun part of hockey for players like him—scoring goals and making plays.
One other thing I should add about Kadri: he seems to draw more penalties from the opposition than most guys. That kind of thing should not be under-valued. Putting your team on the power play because the opposition had to foul you means you are having an impact on the game.
I’m not remotely concerned about hot and old streaks. As I’ve said here at VLM for years, when the puck is going in for, say, Kessel, some will think that means he’s playing great. But sometimes, offensive point production has little to do with how hard you’re playing or how well you’re playing. It can be a matter of a cross bar, an inch or two around the goalposts, a hot goaltender and also whether a teammate makes a certain play or not. It’s a long season and Kadri will be fine.
One thing I will say is this: last year, which was Kadri’s breakthrough season as a very young player, it struck me that he inevitably made whatever wingers he played with better. This season, I’m not sure he has had quite the same consistent impact in terms of making those around him better.
That admittedly surface assessment, by the way, has precious little to do with “stats” and is much more simple observation on my part. He is a very competitive guy. He obviously loves to play, and is a very good hockey player with the puck and, setting aside those defensive issues, without the puck as well. As I mentioned above, few Leafs (maybe none) are better at finding soft spots in a team’s defensive alignment and creating chances.
As for the Kadri trade talk, VLM regulars know that, up to a year or so ago, I had been of the view that Kadri’s name was indeed on the table in any number of possible transactions over the course of the previous couple of seasons. I think that, though he was a high Leaf draft pick, there was some frustration with him throughout the organization (attitude, conditioning, I don’t quite know) and as a result, I believe he was indeed available in the “right” deal.
Now? I have no idea what management is really thinking about his future as a Leaf. He had a stellar year a season ago and I felt he had also some very good moments in the Boston series. He showed, in his first NHL playoff series, that he could play well under the spotlight at a crucial time of year. He should only get better with more experience.
So I certainly don’t think you deal a young player away simply because he has not scored a ton in recent weeks. Plenty of excellent NHL forwards have gone through those kind of stretches in their career.
What is his ceiling? Will he ever be a number-one NHL center? I haven't got a clue. As I’ve said here before, I always remember a prominent Toronto newspaper reporter of the time writing about Lanny McDonald in the mid-‘70s. Early in McDonald’s third season in Toronto, he wrote that the 23 year-old winger (a big time scorer in junior) would never score a lot in the NHL. We all know that McDonald went on to a 500 goal, Cup-winning (in Calgary) Hall-of-Fame career. So I’m not big on pronouncements about what a guy may or may not become so early in their career.
What we do know is Kadri has skill, heart, tenacity and loves being a Leaf. These are attributes we generally admire in a player, and I certainly do in a Maple leaf. For me, if he could eliminate the over-the-line aspect of his game, and showed a bit more humility (it’s not necessary, I realize, just a personal preference of mine in athletes I enjoy following) I’d like to see him as a Leaf for a long time to come.
Any trade, whether we’re talking about Kadri or anyone else, is fraught with risks, of course. You may give up a guy who goes on to play really well somewhere else. Goodness knows the Leafs have some history in this regard, dating back (in my lifetime) to players like Dickie Duff and Frank Mahovlich in the 1960s. (Duff went on to win four Stanley Cups with Montreal, “The Big M”, left, won two himself.) You can add names to the list, I'm sure. Fans of this Leaf team may feel that way about Mikhail Grabovski, though he was not traded away exactly.
I’m less inclined to trade away a young defenseman with a likely big-time future, but good players are hard to come by regardless of the position they play. Trading one away that you spent years developing is not always the best outcome, eh?
All this said, I don’t know where Kadri fits in the mind of the coach, or the General Manager for that matter. I’m not sure I still believe that future roster decisions will be as Carlyle-dependent as they have been over the past twelve months or so. So I don't think Kadri would be dealt just because Carlyle is irritated or whatever. (Jake Gardiner either.)
I’ll conclude with this: when it comes to Kadri, I do think the brass has to decide if he is a player that they can win with at playoff time. I recognize that question needs to be asked of all players you may want on your roster, but I stress it here because in this cap-era, a) he is not simply a replaceable “role player” and b) he will want an awful lot of money before long. Is he a 7 million dollar a year player? Do you want to spend that kind of dough on Kadri? The question the Leafs are contemplating could well be: will he be a guy who is a real impact player, someone who consistently produces and plays a stellar two-way game come crunch time?
I don’t honestly know the answer to those questions, though maybe some of you feel you have seen enough of him to make that assessment.
How Leaf management answers those questions may go a long way toward determining how long Kadri is a Maple Leaf.