DETROIT – Nazem Kadri has learned to embrace the best of both worlds in hockey. But he knows deep down that it may be harder than ever for him to strike the perfect balance between scoring goals and preventing them on this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kadri is one of 12 NHL players who has at least 30 goals in each of the last two seasons and will likely encounter difficulty stretching that streak to a third now that he’s playing behind two other members of that exclusive club: Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
He’s already seen a small dip in playing time early this season. And there’s been a fairly large drop in the offensive capabilities of his linemates, which is probably why Kadri sounded so realistic about his chances of tucking 30 more during a recent conversation.
"Yeah, of course I want to," he said. "I don’t plan on having any setbacks, I don’t really want that to happen. I mean if I don’t get it, is it a huge deal? I mean is it the end of the world? I think I contribute a lot more than just scoring.
"But that’s certainly a mark I’d like to get to again."
The truth of the matter is Toronto doesn’t need him to do it. Matthews and Tavares have both been fired out of a cannon to start the year and could legitimately challenge for 30 goals each by the all-star break.
The expectation is that Kadri will again be counted on to neutralize top competition, especially with last line change on home ice, although it’s interesting that Mike Babcock hasn’t really deployed him in that role just yet in 2018-19.
The coach phoned Kadri after Tavares joined the Leafs this summer and told him to be ready to reprise his matchup responsibilities. It’s something he’s taken pride in since first being trusted with the job two seasons ago.
"You’ve got to understand that I’ve got to start every shift in my D-zone so it’s tough for me to create offence all the time," said Kadri. "That’s my role, that’s the impact I have on this team. You know, I’m just trying to bring both components – the physicality, the grit, along with the scoring and the skill.
"I’m always trying to find a balance with that."
In the two games where the Leafs controlled matchups, Kadri most frequently faced Montreal’s second line (Jonathan Drouin-Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Joel Armia) and Ottawa’s third line (Alex Formenton-Chris Tierney-Bobby Ryan). On the road, he got a steady diet of Chicago’s third line (Chris Kunitz-Artem Anisimov-David Kampf) and Dallas’ second line (Mattias Janmark-Jason Spezza-Blake Comeau).
Kadri has just two assists for the NHL’s highest-scoring team this season, although he’s produced favourable possession metrics while playing alongside Connor Brown on the right and either Josh Leivo or Par Lindholm on the left.
The addition of Tavares has given Babcock a good problem to have. It’s altered the way he typically manages his bench while trying to keep his big three centres engaged, which is why he hasn’t gone chasing matchups for Kadri too aggressively. He’s prioritized creating a rhythm instead.
"I’m just going to figure out my lines and get everyone on the ice as much as I can," said Babcock. "If the situation in the game dictates that then I’ll have it. Naz has got a different type of line than he has in [the past], too, and so that reflects on that as well. Right now the way we’re going is we’re trying to get people on the ice as much as we possibly can and see them in all situations."
Kadri is coming off consecutive 32-goal seasons and got there the same way each time – scoring 20 at even strength and 12 on the power play. His offensive cookies can still be had with the man advantage while playing the bumper position on a unit with Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly.
So it’s really only at 5-on-5 where he’s felt a change in usage.
He frequently played between Patrick Marleau and Leo Komarov early last season and saw Marner promoted to his right side in place of Komarov during a torrid second half. The only way he might eventually see something similar this year is if William Nylander starts off on the third line when his contract stalemate ends, or if Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson find their way there.
A few days past his 28th birthday and now the longest-tenured player in the organization, Kadri gives off the impression he’ll remain patient while the roster evolves. The Leafs are 3-1-0 heading into Thursday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings and Tavares has been an instant hit.
Plus, he understood immediately what it meant to land the big fish in free agency.
"I was pretty surprised, myself, and obviously over the moon when I heard," said Kadri. "I was very excited because that puts us in contention, I think."