Nazem Kadri’s divisive season has him under microscope

The Hockey Central at Noon panel debates whether or not the 4-game suspension, effectively ending Nazem Kadri’s 2015-16 campaign, is the right call? And wonder how much this hurts his credibility heading into another contract year.

TORONTO — It was a season where Nazem Kadri became the first NHL player to be on both ends of a throat-slashing gesture.

A year where he generated more shots, won more faceoffs, played more minutes and produced at a respectable clip given the linemates he dragged around the ice most nights.

And yet it will be remembered by some for the diving fines and four-game suspension that brought an abrupt end to his season on Monday.

That’s the thing about Kadri: He plays on the edge and usually inspires a dichotomy of opinion.

What matters most is the way the Toronto Maple Leafs feel about him and we’ll learn about that soon enough. This is the second straight summer he’s due to receive a new contract and the timing has never been better for the Leafs to lock him up long term.

The comparable contracts should tilt in the team’s favour after a 45-point season, even if they go longer than two years with Kadri and end up buying seasons where he could be an unrestricted free agent as a result.

You’ve got to assume the centre doesn’t replicate a 6.5 per cent shooting percentage. This would have been a 27-goal season, rather than a 17-goal season, had he simply connected at his career rate of 10.5 per cent.

The Leafs still managed to control more than 53 per cent of even-strength shot attempts while he was on the ice – and he almost exclusively drew the toughest assignments.

Trying to sign Kadri to another one-year deal this summer, or taking him to arbitration, would put the player in position to command a much larger payday a year from now.

How this is handled will say a lot about where the 25-year-old stands with the organization. Head coach Mike Babcock has praised him repeatedly – “He might be the biggest surprise for me,” Babcock said in January. “Like I’m almost shocked how good he’s been; and competitive and greasy” – but he’s also one of the few core pieces remaining from the previous regime.

He projects out as a quality No. 2 centre on a good team, but has capably performed as a No. 1 on a roster in the middle of a teardown. He earned $4.1 million to do it.

The last couple weeks Kadri has seemingly been in the middle of every Leafs storyline, both good and bad.

There was a four-point game against Anaheim and a hat trick in Florida, but also two separate diving citations. Then on Saturday he engaged in a battle with Red Wings forward Luke Glendening, ultimately cross-checking him in the neck and earning a four-game suspension with only four games left in the season.

As a repeat offender, it will cost him $200,000 in forfeited salary.

“He was going to cross-check the guy right in the arm,” said Babcock. “(Glendening) braced himself, it hit his shoulder pad and rode up. You’ve got to command your fair share of the ice if you’re going to play hard.

“I’ve got no problem with it. You can’t cross-check people in the head, but you’re allowed cross-check them in the meat of the arm though.”

It is that level of feistiness that has so endeared Kadri to his coach and teammates.

While there is a constant outside discussion about whether he needs to change aspects of his game – he’s drawn more penalties than any other NHL player over the last three years, according to war-on-ice.com – there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much internal debate.

The spotlight inside the Leafs dressing room is constantly trained on No. 43.

“I think wherever he is he’d find the microscope,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “He’s fine. I mean that’s just what happens. He’s a player that plays the game hard. These things are going to happen when you play on the edge and that’s what he does.

“He plays fair, he’s an honest guy. He’s not out there trying to break the rules on purpose, but I mean things are going to happen out there and this is just one of those instances.”

It’s notable that Kadri popped up on the radar of two separate arms of the NHL this season – the New York-based department of player safety handed him Monday’s suspension while the Toronto-based department of hockey operations nailed him with the diving citations and the $5,000 fine for making a throat-slashing gesture at Flames captain Mark Giordano in February.

Despite the attention, he never shied away from the action.

“I don’t think he dwells on things too much,” said teammate Brooks Laich. “He plays with a little bit of amnesia. … I think that’s a tremendous quality, something that’s underrated in people.”

Amid the constant debate about his play, the positive contributions he makes for the Leafs are often overlooked.

With Kadri, that’s just the way it is.