TORONTO – "I’m ready," said Nazem Kadri. "I’m ready."
Ready to reprise his role as the Toronto Maple Leafs nullifier.
Of even greater importance is the fact head coach Mike Babcock appears ready to once again deploy Kadri as his primary matchup centreman. That’s where he’s found his most success as a NHL player, scoring 20 even-strength goals each of the last two seasons despite starting a significant number of his shifts in the defensive zone against high-quality opponents.
Babcock has so far been unwilling to use him in the same manner this season because of the trickle-down effect of William Nylander’s absence due to a contract dispute. It has tested the Leafs depth on the wing and left Kadri to play with a mixed bag of Connor Brown, Par Lindholm and Josh Leivo.
But as the coach has grown more comfortable with Lindholm – the 27-year-old, late-blooming Swede the team signed out of Skelleftea last summer – he’s warming to the idea of unleashing Kadri once again. In Thursday’s 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh, Babcock matched Lindholm-Kadri-Brown against Sidney Crosby throughout the third period and saw them fair well territorially.
It was an encouraging enough performance to leave him thinking about using last change in Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues to get his third line out against Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko.
"We haven’t matched up Naz’s line just because of the situation and who’s on it and that, but we think we’re in a position to start doing that here," Babcock said Friday after practice. "So that’ll be good for Naz as well. He’s an important player on our team. We need him to be mean and we need him to compete hard and just to keep doing what he’s doing."
The benefits of using Kadri in a matchup role are two-fold. Not only has he thrived in those situations previously, but it will free up Auston Matthews and John Tavares to face lesser competition in the games at Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto boasts uncommon depth down the middle, but there’s been an adjustment for Babcock in managing his bench since Tavares arrived as a free agent on July 1.
It’s seen Kadri take a small hit in playing time – something that will likely change if he starts consistently facing No. 1 lines again at even strength. He continues to occupy the bumper role in the high slot on the top power-play unit.
He saw a season-best 17:18 against the Penguins and was thrilled to get seven shifts against the Crosby unit in the third period of a tight 1-0 game.
"I always appreciate that. I think it brings the best out in me and my linemates," said Kadri. "Just being able to be engaged and ready every single shift. Because you know those guys – you can’t have a bad shift because it could end up in the back of your net."
There is no hint of discouragement in Kadri’s demeanour despite having gone through eight games without a goal. He’s hit a couple crossbars so far and had the potential tying goal in Thursday’s game denied by Matt Murray’s left pad late in the third period.
"I’m less than half an inch away from having three or four of them," Kadri reasoned. "For me that’s the positive thing. [It’s] just being able to feel good, feel the puck on my stick, having to play with possession and not constantly playing defence.
"That’s really how I’m approaching it right now."
His underlying metrics are top drawer.
The Leafs have enjoyed more than 55 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with Kadri on the ice this season even though just 25 of his 106 faceoffs have come in the offensive zone. Toronto also has an edge in shots (51.5 per cent), scoring chances (57.1 percent) and high-danger scoring chances (62.9 per cent) while Kadri is out there, according to naturalstattrick.com.
It’s only in the more traditional stats where it’s looked like a slow start: Kadri has four assists to show for his eight games, trailing Matthews (16), Morgan Rielly (13), Tavares (11), Mitch Marner (11), Kasperi Kapanen (eight), Jake Gardiner (six), Patrick Marleau (five) and Zach Hyman (five) on the team’s points list.
"I know my capabilities. I’m just trying to stay confident," said Kadri. "I feel like I’m generating lots of plays out there and creating lots of offence. I have an opportunity to score every game, they’re just not falling for me."
Perhaps a return to his old role will help break the dam.
That was bound to happen when Nylander returned anyway, but Babcock is ready to accelerate the process even with the unsigned 22-year-old winger now skating with the Dornbirn Bulldogs in Austria.
"With moving people around, [Kadri’s] line wasn’t set up to do that at the start," said Babcock. "Now that we’ve found Lindy here, obviously he’s a real good player and very intelligent and good with and without [the puck] and so now we’re more comfortable.
"So we can start moving ahead with our long-term plan."