TORONTO – Entering a season of great expectations, the Toronto Maple Leafs still face some legitimate concerns.
Despite the kind of boost the team should get from adding a player of John Tavares’ calibre, the Leafs’ blue line is, rightfully, still a major question mark.
At the moment, this looks like a team that has all the offensive firepower needed to win a Stanley Cup, provided its defence is good enough to allow them to stay afloat.
It’s a nerve-racking situation to be in considering the Leafs will have other issues to deal with next summer when the salary cap becomes a hurdle. In some ways, this may be Toronto’s best crack at a Stanley Cup, though the blue line doesn’t quite look championship calibre yet.
But as long as Nazem Kadri is wearing the Blue and White, perhaps they don’t have to be.
Kadri, 17th in NHL goal scoring over the past two seasons, just might be the Leafs’ best defensive forward and the X-Factor in their quest for the Cup. In a season that will see him dropped down to the third line while Tavares and Auston Matthews occupy positions in the top six, Kadri will have his best opportunity to add a piece of hardware he’s had his eye on for the past two seasons now.
“When that first got talked about, I said to him, ‘Do you really want to win that trophy?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely. One day I’d like to win that trophy,’” Leafs coach Mike Babcock told Hockey Central at Noon in 2017 about his centre’s desire to be a contender for the Selke. “So I said, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ If he wants to win it then I’m gonna do everything I can to help.”
Kadri has yet to achieve his goal, but he’s continued to improve on the defensive side of the puck and the fruits of his labour are beginning to show.
“He’s found his way by becoming that complete player, but he’s worked at it,” said Steve Spott, assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks.
Spott has had the unique chance to see how Kadri has grown at different points in his career, first when they were together with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and then for one season in Toronto when Spott was an assistant under Randy Carlyle.
He says that while Kadri’s remarkable offensive skill is what put him on the map and allowed him to dominate junior, the centre’s maturation into a responsible player who can be relied upon in his own end has turned him into a valuable NHLer.
“I think he’s a lot less risky now than he was as a younger player and he’s a lot more trustworthy, and that’s to his credit,” Spott added.
Picked seventh overall in the 2009 draft by Toronto after leading the OHL’s London Knights with 78 points, Kadri arrived with the reputation as a scorer who offered little else.
But Babcock changed the equation, and a game against Edmonton on Nov. 1, 2016 put Kadri’s defensive chops on the map.
In that game, Kadri was given the unenviable task of shutting down Connor McDavid, who eventually won the Hart Trophy that season. The result: A minus-2 rating for McDavid, and two hits, two penalty minutes, a plus-2 rating and two big goals for Kadri, including a memorable game-winner in overtime that saw him muscle the puck off the MVP and finish in spectacular fashion.
Nazem Kadri the shutdown defender had arrived.
Since that moment, Kadri’s reputation as a serious pain-in-the-butt to whoever he’s assigned has only grown, and with it, so too have the Leafs’ fortunes.
Last season Toronto recorded a franchise-record 105 points, a mark that coincided with Kadri leading the team with a Corsi quality of competition percentage of 50.33, per Corsica.Hockey. What this means, in context, is that in even-strength situations, Kadri was matching up against the opponents’ best lineups on the most consistent basis.
It’s a role Kadri relishes — he’s always thrived when thrust into challenging situations.
“I think he’s always enjoyed going head-to-head with the other team’s best players because he’s one of those players that wants to compete against the best players in the world, and he wants to show that he’s on that level and can play against the best players in the world,” said Spott.
Added Kadri: “I think no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s something super small or playing a Game 7, I approach it the same way and I want to win.”
This competitive drive – which Kadri says comes from his father – has rubbed off on his teammates. It’s one thing to want to be a strong defensive player, and another for your teammates to trust your instincts when the rubber hits the road.
“When he’s on the ice you definitely feel more comfortable,” Morgan Rielly said. “He’s got our backs. He’s responsible defensively and always seems to be in the right position so it makes you feel more comfortable being able to take risks and play a little more offensively.”
But although the Selke Trophy is defined to go to the “forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game,” traditionally they also need to bring something on offence — only two of the past 13 winners scored fewer than 55 points.
Moving down to the third line would hurt the production of most players, but Kadri may be in a Selke sweet spot. Already a back-to-back 30-goal scorer, he likely won’t be matched up against opponents’ top defensive units, which will be distracted by Tavares and Matthews.
“On the road it can be a little tougher, but I think it could open up some opportunities because we’ve got some pretty good depth forwards,” said Kadri. “I think either way you cut it there’s gonna be some sort of mismatch on the ice and that’s for other teams to figure out.”
And it also appears he’ll still have some prime opportunities to score on the power play, where he’s played with Tavares, Matthews, Rielly and Mitch Marner this pre-season, a star-studded unit that could be the best in the league.
The only thing that may be holding Kadri back, in fact, is a lack of time on the penalty kill. But if Toronto is as good as advertised and he ends up the best defensive player on a Stanley Cup contender, his Selke candidacy will be hard to ignore.