Nazem Kadri may not be the NHL’s most skilled player, nor the league’s toughest.
But what Kadri does have is a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over years of playing hockey. Skills that can make him a nightmare for the opposition.
“I always used to be fairly good at drawing penalties,” Kadri tells Sportsnet. “Just growing up, my father always told me to move my feet and to play at a high pace. Never be standing still. That translated to professional hockey, and it’s become something that’s helped our team.”
When Kadri, a 25-year-old pending restricted free agent, sits down at the bargaining table (or arbitration hearing) this summer, surely his agent will point to his very particular skill.
Since the 2012-13 campaign — Kadri’s first as a full-time NHLer — the young pivot has been better than anyone else at drawing penalties while keeping himself outside the box.
Over that span Kadri owns two of the top three and three of the top five individual seasons with regards to penalties drawn versus penalties committed, according to stat-tracking site war-on-ice.com. Every year he falls somewhere between plus-21 to plus-28 in the category, which is dominated by forwards under the age of 25.
“I don’t think the stat came to my attention until a few years ago. That’s when it started happening on a more consistent basis,” Kadri says. And the reward is immediate. “I like playing on the power-play, and I know my teammates do too.”
This season Kadri leads all skaters — namely whistle magnets Charlie Coyle and Kyle Palmieri — by drawing 28 more penalties than he’s taken. And he should’ve had a couple more calls go his way, if you believe Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
Ironically, the bulk of Kadri’s work in this area is going for naught.
Toronto owns the second-worst power-play in the league, converting on just 15.6 per cent of its opportunities. To put this in more tangible terms, if Kadri was luring penalties at the same rate with a PP powerhouse like Washington instead of Toronto, it would have resulted in at least two more goals for his team. Not insignificant for just a sliver of one player’s arsenal, and it earns him props from teammates.
“They do respect that. They understand how hard you work. I’m only trying to help my teammates. If we get more man-advantages, and once our power-play becomes more potent, we’ll make teams pay,” Kadri says. “Those power-plays are going to come in even more handy.”
So, how does Kadri do it?
By putting some well-worn hockey maxims into practice, relentlessly.
“Move your feet. Play hard,” he explains. “For the most part, trying to be as elusive as possible and always moving at a high pace.”
And cutbacks, he says. Those swift changes of direction in the offensive zone that in basketball would break ankles and in hockey force a defender to hold, hook or trip.
Brooks Laich, Kadri’s new teammate and suddenly the wise ol’ guy in the Leafs dressing room, says two types of players have a knack for getting refs’ hands in the air: guys who never stop moving and guys who never stop pestering.
“Guys that don’t give up on pucks, move their legs, drive through a check and make the other guy pull or tug or trip, just for a second, just because of the extreme work ethic,” Laich says. “The other guys are agitators who can get under your skin and make you lose control of your emotions for a second and take a rough or a cheap shot.”
Draw a Venn diagram of those players, and Kadri plops right in the shady middle: shifty and a disturber.
“Naz—very slippery guy,” says Laich. “He can draw a lot of penalties that way.”
Back in November, Kadri tried to get under the skin of Winnipeg Jets brick Dustin Byfuglien (whose minus-26 penalty differential ranks last in the NHL) and got comically demolished. After the game, however, Kadri explained that he believes he needs to mix things up physically to get himself involved.
“Obviously that agitating has a bit to do with [drawing penalties], too,” Kadri says. “Just getting under guys’ skin.”
But there is a grey area between enticing a penalty and bending the morals of the game.
Of the 19 divers fined for embellishment since the NHL started cracking down on flops last season, Kadri is not one. He reminded reporters this week that he’s never been fined or suspended for diving, that he trusts officials to make the proper calls.
Still, his special set of skills means occasionally walking a fine line and earning a reputation. (During a Toronto men’s league game Monday, one beer-leaguer chirped another for diving like this: “Get up, Kadri! Quit Kadri-ing!”)
Kadri got an embellishment warning from the league on March 21 for this reaction to a Johnny Gaudreau hack:
A second warning will come with a fine.
It’s a paradox. You want to do everything you can to give you team the man-advantage, but you don’t want to be known as a diver.
Kadri says he hasn’t noticed the NHL’s crackdown on embellishment having much effect on the ice. Selling a call is not a conscious act, in his mind, and he won’t change the way he plays to appease critics.
“You don’t really think about it too much. If it happens, it happens. You deal with the consequences later. I don’t think most guys are out here to dive or put on a performance,” he says.
“It’s something you gotta feel out once you’re on the ice. It happens so fast, you’re not even thinking about drawing a penalty. You’re thinking offensively, scoring a goal. If a guy has a chance, he’s not going to be focused on drawing a penalty when he can go in and score. That doesn’t make sense. It’s a fine line.”
Regardless if Kadri’s unique ability lands him another deal with the Leafs, Toronto appears to be developing a few other penalty-drawing forwards.
“Willie [Nylander]’s got what it takes, for sure. He’s got that elusiveness. He’s shifty and quick. He moves his feet down low. You’ve seen his cutbacks. He’s strong on his edges,” Kadri says of his fellow centre. “When you cutback and a guy’s a step behind, he’s got to resort to that last resort to hook you down or trip you up. He’s definitely got it in him.”
In addition to Kadri and Nylander, Laich names another Marlies graduate as a penalty prompter.
Sound the whistle.