OAKVILLE, Ont. – They say you build a Stanley Cup contender through the middle of the ice.
So the Canada Day coup of landing a true No. 1 centre like John Tavares — the greatest free agent prize of the NHL’s salary cap era — immediately made Vegas readjust its 2019 Stanley Cup odds to favour the championship-starved Toronto Maple Leafs and has sent giddy chatter throughout golf carts, summer-league dressing rooms, and patios across the GTA that the three-headed monster of middle ice, Tavares-Matthews-Kadri, could be the key to unlock all of Leafs Nation’s deferred joy.
“I don’t think a player like him would have wanted to sign in Toronto eight, nine years ago. That’s the culture we’ve been trying to rebuild, to acquire those free agents, to make Toronto a destination players want to come to and win in,” Nazem Kadri said Tuesday at the annual NHLPA Golf Classic at Glen Abbey.
“Johnny realized something special we had here, and I think he made the right choice.”
Kadri skated alongside Tavares when the two were junior stars with the OHL powerhouse London Knights.
“Right from the beginning, he was so gifted. He was so much better than everyone else—his hands, his hockey sense is off the charts,” Kadri said.
Kadri was one of several Leafs who reached out to his old pal during the courting period leading up to Tavares’s July 1 decision and considered flying to L.A. to meet him in-person. That didn’t happen, but Kadri did speak to Tavares immediately after the signing.
“I don’t think I have ever seen him so excited. That got me excited, and we’re anxious to start the upcoming season.”
The buzz is palpable among the Maple Leafs, a group of whom met up with homecoming king earlier Tuesday at MasterCard Centre for informal gym and on-ice skills workouts.
“All smiles from everyone in the organization,” says ever-optimistic winger Josh Leivo, who’ll be fighting (again) to earn a spot in the Leafs’ bottom six at training camp. “He’s such a good player. He’s gonna add more depth and scoring. I mean, we scored a lot last year. He’s adding a little extra. So it should be a fun year and hopefully a longer playoff.”
Connor Brown, in many ways, serves a posterboy for Toronto’s depth. He hasn’t missed a game in the past two years, kills penalties, and scored 20 goals as a rookie. He’ll enter camp battling Kasperi Kapanen for a spot on Kadri’s right wing but may have to settle for a fourth-line slot.
“All the boys are pretty excited and the fans just as much so. [Tavares] is one of the best players in the league,” Brown said of Tavares. “If we were to do something special here, it would be pretty awesome, and I think he sees that.”
Since his own arrival in Toronto, Leafs coach Mike Babcock has thirsted for depth at centre ice. “I like centres and D. We’ll get that fixed,” he once said, memorably. When building his international squads, Babcock would purposely overload on centres and push them to the wings.
Of all the formidable centre trios heading into the 2018-19 campaign — Washington’s Kuznetsov-Backstrom-Eller and Pittsburgh’s Crosby-Malkin-Brassard spring to mind — none have filled nets like Tavares, Auston Matthews and Kadri over the past two seasons.
Combined, Toronto’s new trio has averaged 34 goals apiece in each of the past two seasons (and that includes 27 man-games lost to injury).
Scarier still: Tavares and Kadri are the old guys at 27. Matthews is 20.
“To find those three on the same team, it’s impressive,” says San Jose centre Logan Couture, who personally pitched former OHL foe Tavares on becoming a Shark.
“You think of the teams that are able to run those calibre of guys like that out there, there’s not many. So they’re going to be tough for teams to match up against, especially in their own division.”
Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall sees a silver lining in Tavares’s bump out of the Metropolitan Division but isn’t exactly eager to face his friend’s new squad at Scotiabank Arena, knowing Babcock’s penchant for hard matching lines.
Toronto finished third league-wide with 270 goals last season without Tavares but with natural scorer James van Riemsdyk, and the Leafs set a new franchise record for home success.
“There’s gonna be some mismatches for sure,” Hall said. “No matter who they play against, they’re gonna find a way. You’ll probably see them have a very good home record with Babcock being able to match up and really have the players he wants out there. With Tavares, he went there because they’re a strong team, they have a bright future, and I think everyone sees that.”
Certainly, Kadri has that vision.
Now the longest-tenured Maple Leaf with the departure of Tyler Bozak to St. Louis, Kadri used to speak openly of being a first-line NHL centre. Since then, he’s devoted himself to improving his two-way checking game and will fully embrace his job as arguably the best 3C in the business — even if he’s hesitant to label himself such.
“You know what? Winning is most important to me. I know that’s maybe a cliché, but that’s just the honest truth. I don’t care where I play or what role I play,” Kadri said.
“I want to be an impact player and want to continue to have the success I’ve been having. Players ahead of me will give me the chance to do that. It’s not a one-two-three situation. We are all gonna play together. We’re all going to try to have that same success.
“Our ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup and bring it to the city of Toronto. We’re all on the same page.”