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Nazem Kadri: assessing a young Leaf with legitimate potential to be a high-end NHLer

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.

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.

To put things into context and use an old time example, I always admired Bobby Clarke for his leadership, work ethic and competitiveness.  But I never liked the fact that he would do certain things and then basically let his teammates go to battle for him.   Here in Toronto, Darryl Sittler (right) was the closest thing to Clarke that we had in that mid and later ‘70s era. When he hit somebody and had to answer the bell, he did—even though he was our most valuable player and we really couldn’t afford to have him in the penalty box. (In fairness, a hallowed early ‘90s Leaf, Doug Gilmour, did not fight his own battles, and he stirred things up plenty.)

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.


  1. Michael,

    There is no player that has ever played for the Leafs that I would be happier to see leave town. I don't see a place on the team for him if Nonis is going to re-sign Bolland. Bozak is locked up, McClement is our fourth liner, and I think Holland is doing a fine job when given the chance, at a very cheap price. Trading Kadri now, while his trade value is high, would be great for the Leafs. Far better in my opinion, than keeping him for many more years of tantalizing glimpses of greatness, followed by countless games of mediocrity. I really do hope they trade him, soon.

    1. That's part of why I wanted to post on Kadri today, Jim. I know there are differing views out there. Thanks for kick-starting the conversation.

  2. It's funny that you mentioned Gilmour as a guy who didn't fight his own battles. I never particularly liked him, and that was a big part of the reason. I'm sure it was amplified by my unhappiness at seeing Wendel Clark go.

    I would be inclined to keep Kadri around for now, if for no reason other than the fact he is at he same stage of development where the Flyers gave up on JVR. We wouldn't want to repeat their mistake.

    I would also like to see Holland on the second line. Not necessarily to say that if he can handle the duties Kadri is expendable, but it would be helpful to know exactly what we have.

    1. When I read your comment regarding Holland, the first thing that jumped to mind was this: to really find out what we have (and if he is going to get a shot at the second line position) then it needs to be for more than two or three games. Those are big decisions, especially if they impact other roster players. I'd want to see Holland centre the second line for an extended stretch before beginning to determine if he could handle that job. Thanks Oliver.

  3. Michael I think you will find a lot of difference of opinion here and that should make this an interesting discussion.

    I like Kadri. I like his enthusiasm and energy, his skill, and his slipperiness. Even while not producing points he's able to draw penalties. His face-off abilities are improving as well. I did wonder if his lack of physicality had something to do with his suspension and obviously he needs to find that middle ground. He's just a little bit different, isn't he? He's even built differently than any player I can think of.
    I think it makes him hard to play against, It's like trying to catch a shadow.

    Trading Kadri for something " the same" seems pointless to me, just a trade for the sake of making a trade. Chemistry is important and I don't like messing with. The Leafs give up on players a little too fast. Mirtle and Siegel and a wonderful discussion on Kadri (TSN Audio) and on the team giving away skill (Grabo, MacArthur, Frattin) for something else. I don't think Carlyle will be dictating to Nonis who to look for in the future. It hasn't worked as well as he thought it would. Kadri has a two year contract I believe. I'd rather wait and see where he is this time next year. The Leafs will not be challenging for the cup this year, even with a big trade. I'd rather we kept our young talent for now. C.N.

    1. This is a matter that triggers lots of debate, for sure, C.N. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. I think that Kadri has looked better the last two games because of the use of Holland in the 3rd line role, three lines that can score rather than two. The whole team appeared to have a malaise over them prior to Saturday night and it was the best game they have played all year. Nobody on this team is untouchable but it would have to be some deal in order to trade Nazem, say for a John Taveres. I don't mean straight up because the Isles wouldn't go for it but in a package. That would be the only way I make a trade, we get back the best player as in the Sundin deal.

    1. Thanks for posting, purch- so hard to know what the Leafs are thinking...

  5. No, don't trade Kadri.

    I know this other player, low first round draft pick, selected to play in the world juniors, flashes of world class play, but not consistent and not quite what they hoped for when the team drafted him.

    His team decided to get something good for him while they could. The guy should be familiar: James van Riemsdyk.

    We don't want to have a similar experience with Kadri. James van Riemsdyk's departure must sting in Philly when they see what he does here.

    The other thing I want to bring up is size and genetics. Have you ever seen Kadri's father. He's not slight like Kadri. I wonder if he was thin at Kadri's age? What if Kadri starts to fill out and get more muscle mass right before his peak playing years? At 180, lbs Kadri is good. He cold be terrorizing at 200-205 lbs.

    Take a look at this nice picture of Kadi and his dad in Habs jerseys. Kadri's father looks about 30. He is probably no taller but he is bigger, with thicker shoulders and more muscular than Kadri who just went from 22 to 23.

    Lets give Kadri another year or two to see how he develops professionally, mentally and physically.

  6. Kadri really is a polarizing player, isn't he? I've had a hard time getting a grip on him this year. He hasn't drawn penalties the way he did last year, he's been "over the top" as you say, a bit too often, he hasn't been as effective offensively as we hoped, his face-off percentage is still not good, and he can be lazy on the back check.
    But he has shown flashes of that playmaking brilliance we saw last year, and there's no question for me that his hit on Markov at the start of yesterday's game really goosed the Leafs' energy. His two set-ups last night were things of hockey beauty, pure and simple.
    And it's those latter facts that make me hope we'll keep him, despite his frustrating inconsistency (and hasn't that been a team characteristic this year?). For one thing, he's had such a carousel of wingers this season, it's not surprising it's taken a while for chemistry to develop with them. He's very young, and I think he's improving. If the promising play we've been seeing recently continues, he could be a valuable part of our team in the next few years.

    1. Polarizing is a good word, eh, Gerund? Still lots of potential- but what is the real ceiling as an impact guy, I wonder.

  7. I would not trade Kadri at this time for as you stated Michael, he is still very young and somewhat immature. If I remember correctly, we were debating in VLM at the beginning of last year's shortened season whether he should even make the team. He has come a long way since then and I give kudos to Carlyle for initially bringing him along slowly.

    Many of us , at the beginning of this season, eagerly looked forward to a second line of Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson. Injuries and suspensions have played havoc with that. Kadri has not had a line to call his own this year. He was always in a caretaker role during his time on the first line. he has had various line mates since, most notably an out of position Lupul. I think this has led to some of his consistency problems. Saturday the line of Kadri, Lupul on his preferred left wing, and Kulemin looked effective to the point that they scored and significantly, were on the ice protecting the lead at the end of the game. I believe that this could be an effective 2nd line and would like to see Carlyle keep it together and give it a chance to gel.

    Peter Holland has been mentioned as a replacement for Kadri if he is traded. I have liked what I have seen in the brief time he has been with the Leafs but he is young, raw and untested, somewhat like the Kadri of a year ago. I am very happy seeing him gain experience in a lessor role as a 3rd line centre.

    Kadri is a very talented young man who has taken longer to mature than a lot of Leaf fans had hoped. When he finally puts it all together I believe that performances, such as he put forth Saturday, will become the norm. That would be well worth waiting for.



    1. Well said, Pete. Thank you. I wanted to get a range of views today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. I was almost shocked to see Kadri's line on the ice with a minute to go in the game... but they earned it on Saturday with some energetic play, setting the tone and winning battles (even Lupul's empty netter award). Having a defensive conscience who can dig out pucks in the corner is the catalyst we envisioned with Clarkson (who, in his defense, seemed to fit better with Bolland for their brief overlap together).

    Removing Raymond (who added some dangle and scoring punch to Holland's line, not to mention still contributing on the power play), gave Kadri the zone entry spotlight that Mason has been providing. Nazem waited until he was deeper in the zone to try the dangle on a puck-watching Emelin that led to the beautiful set up for JVR. This is just the kind of upside that Kadri brings to the mix.

    If he keeps getting deeper in the zone without a turnover, then Randy will reward the young man with his trust (like that last minute with the always responsible Kulemin in the mix). The 3 lines seemed more balanced on Saturday and I was glad to see that good, clean hit on Markov and hope that Nazem will continue to bring that kind of game to the mix.

    I wonder if his new contract (and desire for a bigger one) played into the 'over the edge' actions that bring some concern... then the suspension led to some tentative play. Perhaps he was given time with Raymond who seemed to have the coach's approval to 'bring the puck into the opposition zone' until the recent string of predictability and increasing turnovers MAY have provided Nazem another opportunity to take on that role with his much maligned coach... maybe, just maybe, they have a plan that is dictated by the players up and downswings.

    Saturday night provided another in that string of statement games you were mentioning looking for, Michael... I'm glad we're seeing some creativity with the lineup AND game plan. I'm noticing that since the arrival of Gleason (who makes zone entries more difficult for 'playmaking') that Phaneuf joined in making some hits near (and beyond) his own blue line... he was NOT out of position, because a forward seemed to be backchecking effectively when anyone went for the hit... it almost seems like they were coached into such a strategy!

    1. Great post, InTimeFor62. I don't doubt Carlyle and his staff have been preaching a lot of this for ages- whether the players are paying attention or the different line configurations have created better balance, I don't know. But wins are better than losses!

  9. I love Kadri. I love his cockyness, the way he chirps the opposition and gets under their skin, the way he steps up his game, it seems, against the traditional rivals like Sens and Habs. I love his interviews and I love the fact that he's Lebanese and 'an Ontariah boy'. I remember his pre-game interview at some point last season and him saying that the game against Ottawa was going to be a good one and that he`s noticed that `Sens don`t like to get hit`. So, he is just one of those guys (like Grabovski) that I really like as personalities. I liked Grabo because he was funny.

    I agree with your assessement of what`s good and bad about Kadri and I`ve said a few of those things here already - he`s a very special player that can do `magic`like very few other players can, he has what I would call `hockey energy`- the ability to really move his teammates with a hit, a chirp or a penalty-drawn. I think he`s played very well this year and there`s no denying that he was amazing last year. He will get better - he has what it takes.

    The big question, however, is just how good will Kadri be - as good as Tavares or Towes or Getzlaff or as good as Ribero (who he`s often compared to) and how the management projects to answer that question is what`s going to decide whether he gets traded or not.

    Unlike most of the posters here I actually feel that we can have a chance at a Cup-run this year and with that in mind I wouldn`t be against a move that lands us someone like Tavares or E. Staal (someone a little more `for sure` and consistent) in exchange for Kadri. I think a combination of Carlyle`s preference for big bodies, a realistic chance at taking a shot at the Cup this year and Toronto`s recent emergence as a team and a city players want to come to will result in Kadri being traded.

    1. Hi's just so difficult to assess what the Leaf brass is tinkling about Kadri. He brings the traits you describe, some frustrating elements, too. Is he a complete package yet? Seemingly not.

      Some here today are not as high on him; others are. You like him a lot but would understand a trade if it would help the Leafs' chances this season. I guess this is why we love talking about these things. Thanks leafdreamer.

  10. Is there a more polarizing player on the Leafs than Kadri the last 2 years? If it isn't him he is top 2:)

    My take on Kadri. High end skill and talent. Character is questionable to me. It is one thing to think you are a #1 centre and work hard toward that goal. It is another to act like you are when you are not even close yet. A #1 centre playes 9/10 games like he did against Montreal not 2/10. A #1 centre has a maturity level that is at least equal to his years if not beyond. A #1 centre has some measure of leadership and puts the team first knowing his own personal goals (stats/contract/etc) will come when the team does well.

    What scares me is I am not sure him maturing will change the character. I do not believe you can 'build" a character person. You have it or you don't. Character can be tweaked some with maturity but completely built? I don't believe it can be.

    People talk about his points he has put up. Yes he has. When he was protected by Carlyle and played against the other teams 2nd best or worse lines. Which is fine in of itself.

    I don't see Kadri ever becoming a Tavares or Toews or Getzlaf. I see the odds of him becoming a Ribero as much higher. Is that good enough for the Leafs from a top 10 overall pick?? Maybe so.

    So, do you trade Kadri now while the value is very high and take a risk he turns into more or do you hold onto him for a few years and risk he is worth a 3rd round pick in trade ?? Good question. I think I would hold him for another year and just see what happens. A very tough situation to deal with for Leafs management though with no simple easy answer.

    1. I was nodding along with your comments today, Pep. Character is such a difficult thing to truly gauge, but I think you raise fair points. Thanks for chiming in on this one.