DALLAS – Nazem Kadri stopped, mid-sentence, when he realized who was standing beyond the scrum of reporters.
“You want in here?” Kadri said to Mitch Marner. “I’m sitting here pumping your tires, and you’re watching?”
The mood was light after back-to-back road wins entering the all-star break. But there was also a different complexion to the Toronto Maple Leafs during a mini road swing through Chicago and Dallas, and it was enough for coach Mike Babcock to re-evaluate his lineup strategy.
“The great thing about is we’ve got a break, and we’ve got lots of time to think about that,” he said after Thursday’s 4-1 victory over the Stars.
Kadri had seen his luck finally change and it wasn’t all due to the inevitable regression in his shooting percentage. There was a spark after Marner was bumped up to the right side of his line with Patrick Marleau and this latest experiment may have gone a little better than even Babcock expected.
Originally, he’d intended only to unite them as part of a rebalancing of his lines for the road. But they made a pretty strong case to remain together when Toronto hosts the New York Islanders at Air Canada Centre next week.
“Obviously they played good,” said Babcock. “I saw that, too.”
As it turns out, the Kadri line played its familiar shutdown role even though the Leafs coach didn’t control the matchups with first change on the road. They drew considerable time against Patrick Kane and Co. in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime win at Chicago and spent more than six minutes going head-to-head with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov in Dallas.
The stated reason for Babcock’s line shakeup earlier this week was to give opposing coaches tougher matchup decisions.
Ken Hitchcock actually split the Benn-Seguin-Radulov trio between facing Kadri and the Auston Matthews line – with Matthews and Zach Hyman each getting set up for goals by William Nylander during minutes when the Stars top players were on the bench.
“I like the way their team plays,” said Hitchcock. “I like the dynamic they have in their group. They use their speed to close down on people significantly, which is what you have to do in today’s NHL. They don’t use their speed just with the puck, they use it without the puck and that’s hard to play against.”
Kadri’s goal at even strength was scored away from Seguin. It came after Marleau rushed into the offensive zone and Marner gained control of the puck, freezing Stars goalie Ben Bishop with a brilliant pass to his new centre.
“I’ve just got to focus on getting open because Mitchy can play with the puck,” said Kadri.
“I just looked up and saw Bishop kind of sprawl out to me, and saw Naz come in the lane,” added Marner. “I think a lot of guys know on our team that I’m not going to shoot a lot. I mean he told me right after that he was ready the whole time, he knew it was coming to him.”
It was not so long ago where Kadri was in the throes of a massive dry spell, bemoaning his bad bounces. With three goals in two games – including a pin-balling pass off two Dallas defenders and in – the tone had changed.
Somewhat lost in the shifting sands is that the new-look fourth line – with longtime Kadri counterpart Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore and AHL call-up Kasperi Kapanen – played more than 10 minutes.
They clearly earned some quick trust from Babcock and allowed him to roll his units rather than worrying about heavily sheltering the bottom one.
“It gives us a different look,” said Babcock. “And then with Leo there, we could put him in on a D-zone faceoff, use him all over, so that was positive for us, too. I thought Kapanen was really good for us, gave us four lines with good speed.”
That seemed to suggest we should expect this to be the new normal once everyone returns from the break. If that’s the case, veteran Matt Martin will continue to be scratched.
Those that played seemed enthusiastic about what they saw.
Marner has bounced between all four centres on the team this season and thinks there’s merit to keeping him with Kadri and Marleau.
“I mean it would be nice,” said Marner. “I’ve enjoyed playing with them the last two games. I think our chemistry is getting a lot better and I think it’s going to keep growing.”
Kadri and Komarov are extremely tight on and off the ice, but even he didn’t mind the change.
Yes, there’s a seven-year age gap with Marner, but there’s also an opportunity to pile up more points with a fellow London Knights alumnus.
“Obviously, if he’s got London roots he’s a fantastic human being and it’s nice to play with him,” said Kadri.