The Toronto Maple Leafs have found themselves on a three-game winning streak. As their young stars continue to shine, one veteran has proved that he is just as much of a core player and a significant contributor to the team as anyone else. Nazem Kadri has truly been stepping up his play this season, and it really is not a shocker.
Drafted seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Kadri was initially seen as a smaller sized, offence-first type centre who had a knack for scoring. He was definitely skilled, putting up 15+ goals in every season since the 2013 campaign adding three seasons of 40+ points in that span. His defensive game, however, was an evident flaw that Leafs coaches tried to get him to fix. He constantly would find himself turning over the puck in unruly situations and breaking down defensively quite often. Not to mention, his maturity levels varied throughout the years. He was even scratched for two games in 2015 after he slept in for practice. These days, however, Kadri has matured both on and off the ice, and it is really showing up in his game.
Finding himself on an incredibly young Maple Leafs roster this year, Kadri knew he would have to step up and take on a leadership role right away. Under coach Mike Babcock, Kadri finally seems to have understood how to become a defensively minded centre. His game is more complete averaging a takeaway per game, and he is playing a more gritty style with offensive flair that appeals more to Babcock’s liking. With his coach’s guidance, Kadri has been able to fit into a role in which he really excels at.
Most significantly, Kadri has become Babcock’s go-to shutdown centre, matching up against opposing teams’ best centres. Most significantly, Kadri matched up against Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid in last Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win for the Leafs. Kadri pestered and tired McDavid out many times during their matchup, a contribution that definitely helped lead to the Leafs’ win.
Nazem Kadri's game plan for tonight is seriously just "make Connor McDavid feel uncomfortable, always" pic.twitter.com/4VNeVrjl2g
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 2, 2016
The game that was anticipated as the battle of 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews versus McDavid saw Kadri stealing the show. This contest saw Kadri score two goals, which included the overtime winner, with none other than McDavid on his back.
— Leafs TV (@Leafs_TV) November 2, 2016
Thursday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres also saw Kadri matching up against top line centre Ryan O’Reilly, one he may try to emulate his game off of. He’s not a bad one to copy, as Kadri felt all of his might in the face-off dot (4-13).
Fast forward to Friday night to a rowdy game between the Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks. Kadri scored the first goal of the game to put the leafs ahead. Later on in the game, things got much more physical. In a game with a total of 171 penalty minutes between the two teams, a defining moment was a hit that London, Ontario native laid on Canucks forward Daniel Sedin.
Nazem Kadri hit on D.Sedin. Resulted in five-minute major penalty. pic.twitter.com/dRDj6ftt8v
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 6, 2016
Although you can spend a lot of time debating on whether this was a clean hit or not, or whether Kadri should have got suspended or not, there’s one thing that is definitely drawable from this play. Kadri, who has been evidently trying to take on a bigger defensive and leadership role for this team, had decided to step up and take on one of the opposing team’s top forwards. It may not have been the best hit, but it is evident that he is trying to take on a a new shut-down role for the team, in which he is not afraid to be more physical. Emotions were high in this game, and Kadri didn’t necessarily shy away from getting involved. Despite the controversy surrounding the unfortunateness of this hit, Kadri’s efforts to be more defensively dominant these days is still apparent.
Nazem Kadri has continued to show improvement throughout the years, and he can only get better from here. He is on pace for a career year this season, despite playing alongside less-skilled players than he has in years past and on pace to log nearly three minutes less in ice time than last season. Kadri has six goals and nine points in 12 games this season tying third overall in the league for goal scoring in the early going and fifth on the Leafs in points.
On a team with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, he will most likely slot in as the second or third line centre in upcoming years – which is perfectly fine. His new-found shutdown play has been opening up great scoring opportunities for players like Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner to successfully finish. Although some of his play may be questionable, it is evident that he is making the efforts to mature his game. It has taken some time, but Kadri is definitely trying to become a dominant center who can act as a role-model on a young and inexperienced team.
Kadri and the Leafs will seek to extend their winning streak Tuesday night when they take on the Los Angeles Kings at home.