DENVER — Whether or not Nazem Kadri actually needed a change of scenery to take this next step is open for debate.
Stepping out of the media frenzy in the centre of the hockey universe may have been a benefit, even though the feisty centre loved his 10 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who chose him seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Draft.
What is not up for discussion is that he’s taken his game to another level after becoming a member of the Colorado Avalanche on July 1 of 2019.
Ultimately, the Toronto Maple Leafs came to the conclusion there was simply too much suspension baggage to overcome, so general manager Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger on a deal to send Kadri to the Avalanche for defenceman Tyson Barrie and forward Alex Kerfoot.
Kerfoot has ended up chipping in the secondary scoring department, but Barrie’s single season with the Maple Leafs saw a 20-point dip in his point total (while playing eight fewer games) and he never really found his footing until moving on to the Edmonton Oilers.
This was one of several integral deals Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic has made to help get his team back to the NHL's final four for the first time since 2002.
Interestingly enough, the Oilers serve as the opponent for the Avalanche in the Western Conference final, which resumes on Saturday night in Edmonton, with Colorado holding a 2-0 edge after 8-6 and 4-0 victories.
These days, Barrie is a power-play specialist who usually plays on the third pairing with Brett Kulak, while Kadri has his fingerprints all over the Stanley Cup Playoffs and is coming off another outstanding showing — recording the primary assist on three goals in a span of just over two minutes of Game 2.
Kadri unleashed a shot that was tipped in by Artturi Lehkonen to open the scoring at 3:58 of the second period, got the puck over to Josh Manson for slapper that beat Mike Smith 15 seconds later and then provided a slick feed to Mikko Rantanen to complete the offensive explosion that completely changed the complexion of the game in a span of 124 seconds.
“(That) is a perfect example of what he can bring to our team,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “The game is going well, it’s pretty even through the first portion of the game and he makes a play to break things open and then, next thing you know… we’ve got three goals and he’s in on all of them.”
It’s easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and criticize the outcome of this deal, and the angst level for Maple Leafs fans surely rises exponentially when watching versatile winger Zach Hyman play such a valuable role for the Oilers after departing as an unrestricted free agent, too.
That’s not the intent of this column.
Kadri’s ability to put the past disappointments behind him and find a higher level is the genesis.
Players like Kadri are hard — bordering on possible — to find these days, especially when you consider the package he brings to the table: a blend of skill, sandpaper and the ability to get under an opponent’s skin as an agitator.
During his first two seasons with the Avalanche, it’s fair to say there was a feeling-out period but he settled in nicely in the role of second-line centre behind Nathan MacKinnon, contributing 30 goals and 62 points in those first 107 regular-season games.
You can be sure there were plenty of I-told-you-so’s raining down from the cheap seats during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Kadri received an eight-game suspension for his illegal check to the head on St. Louis Blues defenceman Justin Faulk in Game 2 of the opening-round series.
Not having Kadri available for the final two games against the Blues and the six games against the Vegas Golden Knights was a critical blow for the Avalanche, who bowed out in the second round for a third consecutive season.
That latest trip to the principal’s office could have gone one of two ways — either Kadri was going to find a way to play closer to the line without going over it or he was going to run the risk of wondering which team might be the next to show faith in him.
Longtime NHL head coach Pete DeBoer remembers watching Kadri for the first time at a Team Ontario under-16 camp and he left such an impression that the Kitchener Rangers chose him in the first round (18th overall) of the 2006 Ontario Hockey League Priority Draft.
“He was a six-foot, 140-pound version of what you see now,” DeBoer said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Highly skilled, tenacious, on the puck, pissing everybody on the ice off. You could really see the potential of what he could become.
“I spent almost 15 years in junior, and as a coach and GM, you meet a lot of prospects and kids' families, but very few stand out the way the Kadri’s did, with (his dad) Sam, his mother (Sue) and sister (Yasmine). Just fantastic people, great energy, and you could tell how tight they all were. They are a really special group, that’s what I remember.”
Going into the final year of his contract, there was certainly an incentive for Kadri to harness the emotional part of his game, but he’s not the kind of player who can play tentatively and be as effective.
He’s at his best when he’s involved in the guts of the game, getting involved physically along with making plays and scoring big goals.
Kadri has struck a perfect balance this season, producing the best offensive season of his career with 87 points (including 28 goals) while not seeing any dropoff on the engagement side of the equation.
It’s fair to assume he would have eclipsed 90 and may have threatened to hit triple digits had he not missed 11 games.
For Kadri, he’s found a way to bring it all together.
“The thing about Naz is that he’s a smart kid. Every lesson you learn in this league, in order to become better and find another level, you have to evolve,” said DeBoer. “That’s the tale of Nazem Kadri. There’s very few guys that have it all figured out at 19 or 20. You cannot teach what he brings to the rink every day and sometimes finding that line to walk is not easy. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, but he’s obviously found it and has been a critical part for (the Avalanche). You can’t have enough of those guys. That energy he’s got is infectious.
“I can only speak to last year, but in Vegas, when we beat them in six, he was due back for Game 7 and I was thankful we finished them in six. I wasn’t interested in seeing him in Game 7 against us.”
Kadri’s offensive output has continued this post-season, as he’s already notched six goals — including a hat trick in Game 4 against the Blues under circumstances nobody should ever have to put up with — and 14 points in 12 games.
“No surprise to me. That's to be expected from a guy like that,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog. “He's a big-time player, steps up in big moments, and he likes that. He likes the pressure on him, and he likes stepping up in these situations. So he's been awesome for us. (In Game 2), that line (with Rantanen and Lehkonen) was a game-changer.”
Talk about a perfect time to be on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Kadri, who is in the fifth and final year of the six-year, $27 million ($4.5 million AAV) deal he signed with the Maple Leafs in 2016, isn’t worried about the raise he’s sure to receive or where he might end up.
He’s far too close to reaching a more-important goal to be derailed by worrying about his future.
If the Avalanche are able to secure six more victories, Kadri will get his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s mug, which means the list of suitors is probably only going to grow and the price tag could go even higher.
No matter how things go during the next several weeks, Kadri’s ability to evolve as a player while bringing his positive attitude to the rink each and every day are qualities that every team in the NHL could benefit from having as part of their organization.
That’s not to rule out a return to the Avalanche either.
Although MacKinnon is due a raise of his own after next season from the $6.3 million he’s earning through 2022-23, there is some money coming off the books with nine pending unrestricted free agents on the roster (including Kadri).
Sakic will worry about making the pieces fit when the time comes.
For now, he’s just happy he was able to pull the trigger on the deal that brought Kadri into the fold.
The return on investment has already been Rocky Mountain-high and it could end up leading to the ultimate prize.