TORONTO – If the book is out on Nazem Kadri among NHL referees, Mike Babcock wants it slammed shut right now.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were incensed by a couple non-calls against their top centre on Saturday night, including a late cross-check from David Krejci moments before Matt Beleskey’s empty-net goal sealed a 3-1 victory for the Boston Bruins.
Kadri has long been one of the NHL’s best players at drawing penalties but suddenly the calls have dried up. It’s reasonable to believe his reputation might have something to do with it.
Point made – and taken – according to Babcock.
“So that’s four games the memo must be out there that they’re not allowed to call a penalty [on infractions against Kadri],” he said. “It’s got to be over with now. Let’s get on with it. When there’s a penalty let’s call a penalty. Let’s move on.”
And so a generally uplifting six-game homestand at Air Canada Centre came to an end in a frustrating fashion.
Playing with a lineup almost half compiled of AHL players, the Leafs won four of those games and did plenty to get fans excited despite continuing to take up residence in the NHL basement.
Kadri is an in-betweener; no longer a kid and now tasked with the toughest head-to-head matchups every night in order to ensure teenager William Nylander finds some easier ice. Part of his game is getting under the skin of opponents and it’s put him smack in the centre of some interesting situations in recent games.
Against Calgary on Monday, he was assessed a diving penalty after laying Johnny Gaudreau out with a clean bodycheck, and then falling to the ice when Gaudreau and Josh Jooris both slashed him. There was clearly no benefit of the doubt applied from the referees there.
With about 80 seconds remaining on Saturday night, everyone seemed to stop after Krejci shoved Kadri into the boards — except no penalty call came. Boston soon gained control of the puck and iced the game.
“How we didn’t draw one there, that was the definition I thought of a cross-check,” said Kadri.
“I wasn’t very hungry,” he added. “I didn’t want to eat the dasher board there, so it’s not like I’m trying to dive head-first. I’m worried about my safety and my health more than drawing a penalty.
“That’s just how the game gets out of hand, but who am I to judge?”
Asked if the referees had started turning a blind eye to fouls against him, Kadri didn’t bite: “I don’t know – you’d have to ask them.”
Babcock has defended the 25-year-old when questioned about how he goes about drawing penalties. In the eyes of the coach, it is Kadri’s competitiveness and willingness to finish bodychecks that leads to so many infractions taken against him.
In addition to the Krejci play – which he said should have at least resulted in offsetting penalties, like the simultaneous Nylander hooking and David Pastrnak embellishment calls earlier – Babcock felt a slew foot on Kadri was missed late in the second period.
However, he acknowledged that he didn’t broach the subject of a different standard being used for Kadri with referees Jean Hebert and Tom Kowal.
“I don’t think they’re in a talking mood there,” said Babcock.
As good as things have been going for Toronto, the mood was pretty ornery after the final buzzer. Defenceman Morgan Rielly took out some frustration on Boston’s Loui Eriksson after Beleskey’s empty-netter and was fairly curt when speaking with reporters.
“We lost,” Rielly said of his frustration. “That would be it.”
The players with some experience are clearly taking it upon themselves to ensure the team finishes its schedule off with some pride.
“We’re going to keep fighting from puck drop to the last whistle,” said Kadri. “I think that’s the really positive thing about our group. When we start to learn to win, that’s an important part of it.”
Any irritation should be long gone by the time the team flight lands in Florida on Sunday afternoon. There are just two weeks left in the Leafs’ season, starting with games against the Lightning and Panthers on Monday and Tuesday.
The trip south comes along at a welcome juncture.
“It’s always nice to see the sun,” said Babcock.