Playoff loss to Capitals provides lessons for Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock discusses whether or not he feels there's a rivalry between his club and the Washington Capitals, based off last year's playoffs.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For how tight the games were, for all those overtimes, for the many ways the Toronto Maple Leafs might have upset the Washington Capitals, they still haven’t come up with a tidy way to talk about their near-miss in April.

You can find the platitudes, of course, but actual lessons learned? Those are hard to come by even six months on from an experience that was widely viewed as on-the-job training.

Except this: Mike Babcock believes Nazem Kadri got worn down while facing the dangerous Nicklas Backstrom trio during the series. He even hinted that it led to Kadri being “challenged” to take his off-season training to another level.

“He’s just got to keep getting better,” Babcock said last month of Kadri, on the opening morning of training camp. “In the end though, in a series, you play head-to-head against the same guy all night long for six games. You might have the good play early in the series, but the other guy had the play late in the series.

“You’ve got to have the play all series.”

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Kadri saw nearly 95 total minutes of ice time at even strength over six games and the Leafs took on a lot of water in those situations. Of course, he spent more than two-thirds of his minutes going head-to-head with Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.

The line was particularly effective against the Leafs in Games 4, 5 and 6 – all won by Washington – and Kadri finished with a 43.6 per cent possession rating in the playoffs.

On the plus side, his line was only outscored 3-2 by the Backstrom line overall. But in a tight series decided in the margins the Caps clearly had the edge in that key area.

“You’re a fool if you think you’re going to go out there and dominate every single shift,” Kadri said Tuesday, upon his return to Capital One Arena. “They’re great players, they’re going to have some offensive chances and you’ve got to limit those. A lot of shifts are going to be 50-50 split – you know, nobody’s going to win them and you’ve got to be patient in order to get those offensive opportunities.”

Beyond the result, the 27-year-old has fond memories of the Caps series. While teammates downplayed the significance of returning here, Kadri referred to the six-gamer as “definitely a classic.”

He took a major step last season towards becoming an impact centre over 200 feet and the playoff challenge was unlike anything he’d faced before. With the stakes raised, he had to line up across from Backstrom again and again and again.

“If you play him over the course of five years once every 30 games, it’s a lot different than playing him six games in a row,” said Kadri. “So you start to really notice and pick up on things that maybe you didn’t notice before. It’s not easy by any means, but I’d almost rather that.”

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Implied in Babcock’s playoff assessment is that the Leafs need him to be better when this season eventually reaches its crescendo. The coach continues to deploy him in hard matchups against the opponent’s top centre – Kadri has faced Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, New York’s Mika Zibanejad and New Jersey’s Pavel Zacha when Toronto enjoyed last change – and his line with Leo Komarov and Patrick Marleau has produced great results so far.

But the true test for Kadri will come over time. Perhaps that is when he’ll reap the benefits of a summer where he dropped weight by cutting cookies out of his diet.

When Babcock reflects back on the lessons of last season, he points to the fact the team had to win 11 of 14 games during a particularly tough March stretch just to get in to the playoffs. That impacted how they prepared for the first round.

“We rested our team a lot,” he said. “On the good teams you skate your team lots so you’re ready for the playoffs even more. So it’s all dependent on what program you’ve got going. But I think we can be a way better team than we were last year and, yet, we’re five games in – and so it doesn’t mean anything – but we’ve done a good job with the first five.”

Even though Auston Matthews has established himself as Toronto’s top player, Kadri is an integral piece as well. You don’t see many teams have success in the spring without a high end 1-2 punch.

The Leafs were oh-so-close against Washington last season – getting outscored 18-16 (6-4 on special teams), out-attempted 363-349 and dropping three games in overtime. In Kadri’s words, they were “just a bounce our way from moving on to the second round.”

“We did OK,” said Komarov. “But we didn’t win the series so obviously not good enough.”

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