5 intriguing landing spots for star UFA Nazem Kadri as decision looms

Watch as Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri drives to the net and fires the puck past Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to score the OT winner in Game 4 in his first game back since sustaining a thumb injury and having surgery.

Few would’ve predicted Nazem Kadri would still be available this far into the off-season, weeks after the NHL’s 2022 free-agency window officially opened. Fewer still have been able to figure out which way the centreman’s leaning as he mulls the career-altering opportunity in front of him.

As everyone in every corner of the hockey world is aware by now, the 31-year-old UFA’s coming off a dominant, career-best campaign, one that saw him amass the most points he ever had in his 12-year big-league career, and one capped off by a gutsy playoff run that ended with a Stanley Cup ring.

It’s more than just the numbers he put up that’s brought the suitors to Kadri’s door this off-season, though. It’s the wider shift that’s taken place, the change in the perception of who he is as a player and how immensely impactful he can be. That shift started way back in the early goings of 2021-22, when the former Toronto Maple Leaf found himself among the top scorers in the game, staying there until injuries halted his ascent.

And then came that Cup run, which saw Kadri not simply chip in along the way, but come up with marquee moments, battling through injuries and proving his mettle as a key piece of Colorado’s winning squad.

Which brings us here, the London, Ont., native deciding what his next chapter will look like, the dust having settled on that title run.

Kadri’s made it clear a return to Colorado remains one of the top options — no surprise given what he and the Avs accomplished together. Running it back isn’t impossible. The Avs have just under $4 million in cap space, and could clear enough to re-sign the centreman by moving out a depth piece. But after playing out a six-year deal that paid him $4.5 million per season — a wild bargain for Colorado this past year — Kadri’s set to earn a significant, well-deserved raise. If he doesn’t get Johnny Gaudreau money, as was initially expected, he’ll get at least a few million more per year than last season’s sum.

That might be doable for Colorado right now, but it gets trickier when you factor in the deals they’ll need to sign down the road, particularly the one for offensive focal point Nathan MacKinnon.

So, an exit might seem inevitable after all, even in the wake of that magical season together. According to Avs beat writer Peter Baugh, Kadri’s set his sights on joining another contender if he does leave Colorado, and has ruled out clubs not viewed as part of that group. Baugh also reported a number of teams have been trying to work deals to clear cap space in order to sign him, which would explain the weeks-long delay.

That all said, where might the champion pivot end up in the end?

Since Gaudreau first declared his intention to leave Calgary, all eyes turned to Kadri as the most obvious star-for-star replacement. That only intensified when Matthew Tkachuk decided to move on from the Albertan club too, though the question of whether the Flames remain a contender was complicated by the departure of the two stars and the addition of Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

Either way, as it stands right now, the Flames are still less potent offensively than they were last season, with two 100-point talents in Gaudreau and Tkachuk going out the door and one in Huberdeau coming back. There’s still a need to bolster their offence to get, at least, back to where it was during a promising 2021-22 campaign, and Kadri still appears the best avenue to do that.

Cap-wise, there seems to be room for a deal. The Flames’ current $9 million in cap space will evaporate quickly once they re-sign Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington, but if they’re able to find a deal to move out Milan Lucic (and his $5.35 million) or even Sean Monahan ($6.38 million), they should wind up with enough room to reel in one more key piece.

Reports from the early days of free agency suggested the Flames had made an offer to Kadri, but not one that would’ve paid him the hefty money most expected him to sign for at that time. That means the team does seem to be interested in what the Cup winner could bring to Calgary’s lineup, though. As for the number they’re offering, if Kadri’s hoping to sign with a contender — all of whom have limited cap space — it won't be for a massive Gaudreau-esque salary no matter where he ends up.

If he was looking to ink a massive deal and simply cash in on a career year, it seems Kadri could've done that already in the early days of free agency. All signs point to this delay coming because he's looking to join a club that can win. And if a Colorado return isn’t in the cards, Calgary seems the clearest option — a club with elite pieces up front (in Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm), with whom he would be a key piece (likely slotting in as the 2C behind Lindholm, perhaps linking up with an elite winger in Huberdeau), with a Vezina-nominated netminder in Jacob Markstrom, and a solid blue line that just got a key upgrade in Weegar.

Brad Treliving’s done a nice job of rebounding from what initially looked like a devastating off-season for the Flames. Returning next season having replaced Gaudreau and Tkachuk with Huberdeau, Kadri and Weegar might even be considered a step forward for the team’s contending hopes.

If we’re talking clubs who still seem to have the pieces to go on a deep run, but have room for Kadri to step into a key role, the Bruins seem a fairly good fit too. There’s also a plausible reason for the delay, with Boston reportedly still mulling the return of veteran unrestricted free agents Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

If Bergeron decides it’s time to hang up his skates and call it a career, the Bruins’ need for Kadri’s services becomes even more pressing, as the club would find itself with a massive hole down the middle. But if the perennial Selke winner does return for another ride, there’s still room for Kadri to potentially join the mix as the top-tier second-line centre the B’s have been craving — someone who could not only stack points himself but help get the best out of the talent Boston has on the wings among their top six, and someone who brings some bite, too.

Of any team Kadri could sign for, Boston seems the best option in terms of the calibre of talent he could line up with. However the lines shake out, he’d be beside at least one of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak or Taylor Hall, and part of what would become one of the East’s most formidable top-six units.

Now, if Krejci returns to his old 2C role after his 2021-22 campaign overseas, the situation becomes more complicated. Signing on for a third-line role on a team that doesn’t look like an absolute home-run of a contender, as opposed to perhaps taking less to simply stay on a team that does, in Colorado, doesn't seem too unlikely. 

A Krejci return also complicates any possibility of a Kadri signing financially. The Bruins have roughly $4.8 million in cap space at the moment, not enough to bring in Kadri even before potential deals for Bergeron and/or Krejci. Moving out a depth forward or defender could clear space, but there’s no obvious solution. And long-term, the team has some key deals to plan for, with Pastrnak and netminder Jeremy Swayman both free agents after the 2022-23 season.

Simply put, Boston’s situation still seems in flux given the question marks around their veteran talent. But if there’s space to bring in Kadri, there’s no doubt he could raise the level of the B’s entire top six. And what wild theatre it would be for Kadri after all those years on the other side of the Leafs-Bruins battles.

The Wild are fresh off a campaign that saw their contending hopes take a massive step forward, their 113 points the most ever put up in franchise history. But despite finishing just six points shy of the eventual Cup champs, Minnesota found itself bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year, losing to the St. Louis Blues in six games. The Wild are knocking on the door, and adding a top-tier offensive talent like Kadri to the mix could help push their current iteration to the next level.

Bill Guerin threw cold water on any hopes of his club making a massive splash in the early days of free agency by preaching patience above all else.

“A lot of mistakes are made on this day,” he’d told The Athletic’s Michael Russo. “With how sensitive our cap situation is … our team is pretty set — we’re going to need one more body — so I feel like we can afford to wait. I just don’t want to make a mistake. I think stepping back and being patient is better than just signing somebody to sign somebody to say that I did something. I don’t need to do that.”

It’s tough to see any desire for adding one of the most coveted names on the market in there. But, at the same time, that early whirlwind of risky moves has come and gone, and perhaps the prospect of potentially adding Kadri has become more realistic. Bringing in the Cup champ for ridiculous money doesn’t seem to be something Guerin is interested in, but again, that doesn’t appear to be the route Kadri’s taking either. If there’s a more reasonable deal to be made, it’s something the Wild should consider, surely.

In terms of fit, Minnesota’s got a solid pair leading the top six down the middle in Ryan Hartman and Joel Eriksson Ek, both of whom are coming off excellent seasons. Still, there’s no question Kadri would be an upgrade there, whether he slotted in on the top line alongside the dynamic Kirill Kaprizov, or on the second line, which would bolster the bottom six by pushing Eriksson Ek to the 3C spot.

On the cap side, Guerin has around $4 million to work with at the moment, with all his free agents inked for next season. One factor that could be key, though — according to Russo, Guerin has “quietly shopped” defenceman Matt Dumba, who’s heading towards the final year of his contract. And the Wild GM's reportedly looking to add another forward to his offence. Should he find a swap that makes sense, and move out Dumba’s $6-million cap hit, a Kadri deal becomes more of a possibility. Whether it's possible Kadri would leave Colorado to sign with one of the Avs' division rivals is less clear, but wilder things have happened this off-season.

Outside of the clubs above and the Avalanche, there aren’t many options for Kadri in terms of bona fide contenders who could potentially fit him into their cap situation without major cap surgery. If the net is widened a bit, though, the Islanders are a team that will surely be in the mix. 

The club’s coming off its worst season in the past half-decade, and recently parted ways with the head coach seemingly responsible for the better times that came before 2021-22, but all isn’t lost for Lou Lamoriello’s squad. Though they missed the post-season last time around, the three years prior saw the Isles sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then go on two deep runs the next two years, both of which ended only at the hands of the champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ve taken a step back but there’s clearly still something there that works.

Looking at the rest of the contenders in the East, the Isles seem in need of some more dynamic talent to lead their top six, especially with Barry Trotz and his system no longer part of the equation. Kadri seems a clear potential solution to that issue. While the Islanders have two solid top-six centres in Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson (and a quality 3C in Jean-Gabriel Pageau), moving one of those top options to the wing in pursuit of a more dangerous offence overall seems a worthy approach. 

Perhaps a shift to the wing could unlock even more of Barzal’s offensive potential — after an exceptional rookie season, the numbers haven’t quite stacked up to the expectations for the 25-year-old, who remains one of the most talented stickhandlers and skaters in the game. He and Kadri could do plenty of damage together on a newly-formed top line. Or, the pair could lead the Isles’ top six on separate lines, with Nelson moving over to become Kadri’s finisher.

It appears the Isles are in the mix, with team beat writer Kevin Kurz reporting recently that he'd heard the Islanders have been making a push to sign Kadri. We know Lamoriello likes what Kadri brings, given the veteran GM was the one who inked him to a long-term deal back when both were in Toronto. It wouldn’t take too much to make space for a reunion — the Isles have some key deals still to figure out, namely for RFA defenders Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov, but they have $11 million in space to work with. Even if those RFA deals cut into that sum, a trade to move out any of the five forwards on the club who make between $2.5–$5 million could open up plenty of space.

If Kadri’s looking for another surefire chance at the Cup in 2022-23, the Islanders might not be his best bet. But if he’s looking for a move back East, closer to home — which seems to be the theme of this off-season — maybe he gives Lamoriello’s new squad a look.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Red Wings. They’re not a contender, not by a mile, given the club hasn’t made the post-season in six years. But they’re no down-and-out rebuilding squad either.

Steadily improving over the past few years, Detroit took another key step in 2021-22 on the back of its youth movement, as star rookies Lucas Raymond and Mo Seider showed a glimpse of their elite potential. Add that to the potential growth still on the horizon for 22-year-old Filip Zadina (the club’s sixth-overall pick in 2018), Simon Edvinsson (sixth-overall, 2021), and Marco Kasper (eighth-overall, 2022). Then there's the pair of proven veterans in Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, both still in their mid-20’s, coming off 30-goal, 60-point campaigns.

And, of course, the veteran talent GM Steve Yzerman’s already thrown into the mix this off-season: forwards David Perron, Andrew Copp, and Dominik Kubalik, defenders Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta, and, perhaps most importantly, netminder Ville Husso. Given that bevy of moves, it’s clear Yzerman feels it’s time for his project to take a bigger leap forward. But the veteran GM still has more than $10 million in cap space to work with, and only a couple in-house free-agent questions to address.

The Red Wings’ top six has already been steadily improving under Yzerman. Dropping Kadri into the 2C spot behind Larkin would give it a significant push forward, with Raymond, Larkin and Bertuzzi up top and Kadri perhaps between Perron and Jakub Vrana. Which would push Copp down into a role as a quality third-line centre, or onto the second-line wing, with one of the other wingers moving down to bolster the bottom six. Either way, it would be an undeniable upgrade for the group's overall level. 

And there’s no denying Kadri would be the type of player Yzerman would covet, given all we’ve learned about what the Hall of Famer looks for in players. Broadcaster and former NHLer Darren Pang, a close friend of Yzerman’s since their teenage years together, shed light on that subject for us a while back.

“He always had that eye. He always knew a hard player to play against or a guy that was a little soft in the corners, would give up a puck rather easily,” Pang told Sportsnet a few years ago, when Yzerman was still GM of the Lightning. “I’d ask him about this player or that player — he’d always say, ‘No no, watch that player in the corner. He’ll give up the puck easy. Watch this player, his second and third effort is incredible. And you look at Tampa Bay’s players and who they’ve scouted — if they’re undersized, they’re undersized, but they’re competitive. Every one of them. They’re competitive hockey players — they want the puck, they’ll do whatever it takes to get the puck.

“He saw something inside them — their soul, their spirit, their competitiveness, their hunger. That’s the way Steve was, the whole time.”

Given the mettle Kadri showed during Colorado’s Cup run, he seems a player who’d stack up well in Yzerman’s eyes. A deal with Detroit wouldn’t be joining a sure-thing contender, but it would give Kadri the chance to join an up-and-comer built by the same GM who helped create one of the league's current behemoths. And the chance to take on a new role, to bring some Cup experience and veteran leadership to a talented young squad, to help lift one of the game's historic franchises back to the post-season.

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