Why Nazem Kadri could be pricing himself out of Colorado

Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri, right, drives down the ice with the puck as Anaheim Ducks centre Troy Terry defends in the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Denver. Colorado won 5-2. (David Zalubowski/AP)

TORONTO – We can pinpoint Lou Lamoriello’s greatest day as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

April 13, 2016.

On that spring day, Lamoriello bought four years of Nazem Kadri’s unrestricted free agency and two of Morgan Rielly’s — inking both emerging stars to six-year extensions at very team-friendly figures well in advance of any sticky RFA standoffs.

“This is where my heart is,” Kadri told Sportsnet after putting pen to paper. The feisty centre acknowledged at the time that he had accepted a below-market AAV in exchange for security with the club that drafted and developed him.

Rielly will finally graduate from a $5-million cap hit to $7.5 million in 2022-23, re-upping long-term in Toronto this October.

Kadri’s future is less certain. Percentage-wise, he should be gunning for a similar raise.

“He’s playing great right now. I had a chance to kinda hang out with him a bit in the off-season around Toronto,” Rielly told reporters Tuesday. “Seems to like it where he is, so I’m happy for him.”

One of this season’s biggest bargains, Kadri is overdelivering on his $4.5-million cap hit and $4-million salary.

The list of players with more points this season than the pride of London, Ont., is Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and that’s it.

Kadri has erupted from the gates, putting up seven goals and 27 points. He’ll return to Toronto Wednesday packing arguably the hottest stick in hockey: 23 points in his past 12 games. With Nathan MacKinnon (lower body) sidelined more than three weeks, Kadri was integral in keeping the Colorado Avalanche power play clicking and its race up the standings humming.

"Naz is a great competitor. He seems to raise his game when the intensity rises, when the stakes are higher," John Tavares said.

"Extremely talented. Tremendous personality. A lot of fun. Great guy to be around."

Kadri is swiping the majority of his face-offs (51.6 per cent), driving the Avs’ All-Contract-Year Line with wingers Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin, and has flipped his plus/minus from a minus-7 last season to a plus-7 this season.

Perhaps GM Joe Sakic should FedEx Lamoriello a fruit basket or something.

“Just trying to dial it in, that’s all,” Kadri told Real Kyper & Bourne Monday. “I feel like I’m moving pretty well out there. I have lots of energy.

“Give it everything I got.”

Kadri says his nine years riding the Toronto rollercoaster helped him develop a thick skin when it comes to criticism.

So even though the emotional player saw a third postseason end prematurely because of a suspension, Kadri appreciated the Avalanche not throwing him under bus in the face of trade rumours and suggestions the team might be wise to make like the Leafs and cut bait.

“It’s been tremendous support, which is something I definitely needed,” said Kadri, who has 29 points in 36 career playoff games. “If I get that opportunity again, I’m gonna be ready for it.”

There’s no reason Kadri won’t get that chance.

The Avalanche — winners of seven of their past eight and now welcoming back MacKinnon — are on track to take another serious run at the title. And Sakic and Kadri (who owns a 10-team no-trade list) are seemingly content to ride this season out before hunkering down and negotiating.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it, but you try not to focus on it too much,” said Kadri, who ramped up his focus and training over the summer in anticipation of his UFA platform year.

“I just want to play out the season and focus on one game at a time, because I feel like that’s the best mentality and best preparation for it.”

Unless Kadri wants to take another discount on what will be his greatest shot at a financial windfall, the cold math says there won’t be room for him in Denver next fall.

Sakic has already promised $16.25 million annually to younger core forwards Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog, and he must begin carving out serious cap space ($12 million? More?) for his underpaid MVP in the summer of 2023. (Technically, MacKinnon can be re-signed the same day Kadri is set to become a free agent, which is July 13.)

Further, the Avs don’t have a single NHL goalie under contract beyond this season and will have other holes to patch with Burakovsky, Nichushin, Ryan Murray, Darren Helm and Jack Johnson heading to market.

Paying Kadri — what, $6 million or more? — into his mid-30s feels like a luxury they won’t be able to afford.

The desirable impending UFAs who can be counted on to centre a top-two line makes for a short list.

Ryan Getzlaf, Patrice Bergeron, Evgeni Makin and Jeff Carter all have brilliant resumes, but they’re all on the wrong side of 35.

Go younger and longer term, and you’re looking at Tomas Hertl, Vincent Trochek and Ryan Strome. That’s about it.

Kadri is producing more than the lot of them, and most hockey executives would rather rein in a player on the edge than try to inject some edge into a player.

On Wednesday, Kadri leads the hottest team in the West into battle versus the hottest team in the East.

“In all honesty, those are my buddies over there. I wish them nothing but the best,” Kadri said. “It’s always an anxious feeling coming back because it’s a place I hold close to my heart.”

The one the Leafs traded away may not be holding any ill will.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold enough motivation to fill a bank vault.

One-Timers: MacKinnon will make his return Wednesday in Toronto. He put up 10 points in eight games before going down to injury.... Toronto’s Ondrej Kase (upper body) hasn’t skated with the team since last Wednesday’s game in L.A. and will not play against Colorado. He did take morning skate... Petr Mrazek (groin) was a full participant in Leafs practice Tuesday. The plan is to give him a conditioning stint with the Marlies this weekend.... The Leafs sent Kirill Semyonov down to the Marlies and recalled Joey Anderson. Anderson (five goals in 13 AHL games) will make his NHL season debut Wednesday. Kyle Clifford will sit.... Jack Campbell versus Darcy Kuemper in the nets.

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