Obviously all eyes are on Toronto’s crop of promising youngsters this season. It’s an honor that’s clearly deserved if the early returns on Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are signs of things to come. The sheer offensive talent that those three boast is tantalizing and they’ve already exhibited flashes of brilliance in the season’s early days.
But it’s the contributions of Nazem Kadri, now one of the team’s veterans, that have helped Toronto’s youth flourish.
For one reason or another, people have taken to calling Kadri Toronto’s third center this season. In an on-paper sense it’s a fair claim but from a practical perspective it’s puzzling for multiple reasons. He’s currently tied for third (with James Van Riemsdyk) in scoring amongst the team’s forwards. He’s playing on a power play unit with Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Those aren’t the typical footnotes associated with a third-line center, and while it’s admittedly early, the most convincing argument comes from the fact that Kadri has routinely drawn the toughest assignments.
Take a look at he and Matthews’ most frequent opponents in each of Toronto’s six games so far (with a stick tap to the folks over at NaturalStatTrick):
There have been some impressive showings from Matthews; logging big minutes against Erik Karlsson and Anton Stralman chief among them. It’s still tough to make the case that the number one pick has drawn the shorter straw in terms of deployment.
It could certainly be argued that Matthews, Nylander, and Marner would perform just as well against opposing top lines. While that may be the case, it’s still a smarter long term play to keep those three moving up slowly rather than throw them directly into the fire.
Kadri, along with Leo Komarov and Milan Michalek, has been entrusted by Mike Babcock to handle the opposition’s top players more often than not. His chemistry and output alongside Komarov last season had them enter this campaign as the team’s nominal top line. They were given starting duties on opening night and while that’s a fairly meaningless distinction in hockey, it’s clear that Babcock views Kadri as his go to option when a defensive situation presents itself.
Kadri is shouldering a lot of the defensive load simply because two of Toronto’s lines demand protection. We saw what the Van Riemsdyk – Bozak combination did in terms of possession alongside an excellent Phil Kessel; the results were decidedly subpar. It’s fair to argue that the two veterans could produce far better results playing under Babcock than they turned in under Randy Carlyle, but it still makes sense to keep Marner away from the toughest minutes at the moment.
Matthews, Nylander and Zach Hyman are excelling in a sheltered role for the time being and there’s no reason to change things up right now. Opponents will surely adjust their own usage to try and stop the deadly Matthews – Nylander pairing, but until that happens it’s best to let those two make magic against inferior competition.
With the waiving of Michalek and subsequent promotion of Connor Brown, Kadri suddenly finds himself alongside a more talented, speedy winger. It remains to be seen whether Brown’s presence on the line changes the trio’s deployment, but it’d be a shock if it did.
It’s imperative that Toronto develops their young guns properly. Allowing their top prospects to avoid the Marchands and Kanes of the world is a huge task that to this point has fallen on Kadri.
Last season, he was forced into the role with Tyler Bozak missing major time and he used that experience to show the coaching staff that he could perform against tough opposing lines. He’s now serving as the type of lineup protection that he was never afforded as an up-and-comer.
The Leafs did well to keep Nylander in the AHL as long as possible and didn’t rush in promoting Marner from the OHL. Had either been with the big club last year they could’ve been swallowed whole by NHL-level competition with Kadri still learning the ropes as a reliable two-way player.
While Matthews is earning the acclaim, it’s Kadri that’s been doing the dirty work. It’s not that Kadri isn’t technically the third line center; it’s that the “first-second-third” nomenclature has been selling him short.
He’s at the stage of his development where he can handle whatever assignment he’s given. Nazem Kadri’s point totals might suffer this season, but he’s indirectly become a large part of developing the Leafs’ future.
Just six games in, it’s already worth taking stock of Kadri’s efforts. They’ll pay off in the long run.