Preview: Game #5 Leafs @ Rangers – The method behind Nazem Kadri

Photo Credit: Abelimages/Getty

Indubitably, Nazem Kadri is saying all the right things about his early season scoring success, and why wouldn’t he? Carlyle has put his young forward in a position to succeed, unlike Ron Wilson, and Kadri is cashing in with three goals in four games and all around impressive play. Why? He’s transitioned from a two-way role to an offensive role this season.

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Friend of the blog Sean Fitz-Gerald over at the National Post had this to say:

Wilson chose a tough-love approach. The coach, who was fired last March, made a habit of questioning Kadri’s commitment to defence in public, as well as his commitment to the physical demands of the NHL. (While declaring the then-20-year-old as a healthy scratch for a home game in December 2010, Wilson said Kadri lacked “hockey strength.”)

The questions about fitness lingered into training camp with Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate last fall. But they seem to have been eased.

It’s an all-around excellent piece worth reading because it shows the trust that the Toronto Maple Leafs have in their coach. Player roles are more strictly defined in this regime than the previous one. Carlyle is a stickler with his lines, his opponents’ lines, his matchups and his zone matchups, and Kadri is benefitting from it.

In that article, Sean makes reference to Kadri’s 27.3% shooting rate, which is unlikely to sustain itself. I didn’t want to be the spoilsport to be the first to mention that prickly little statistic, but expect Kadri to keep up a rate of three goals every four games is just cruel for your expectations of him. He’s not a 60-goal scorer and that’s his current pace.

However, there’s no doubt that Kadri is outplaying the opposition. He leads Leafs’ forwards in early puck-possession statistics, and, if shot differential indicators aren’t your bag, I’ve been counting scoring chances for and against each Maple Leaf in games this season. Kadri has been on the ice for 9 chances for Toronto and just 5 against the Leafs when he’s on the ice.

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The problem, though, is that his current role isn’t one of a hard matchup against difficult competition. Kadri is being sheltered and his minutes limited. How Carlyle, and other coaches, react to this sudden London-born centreman leading the Leafs’ in scoring will be interesting over the course of the next week. Tonight, the opponent is the New York Rangers:

Broadcast Info:

Puck Drop: 7 PM EST


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The John Tortorella-coached New York Rangers are a team that always seems to be in contention. The Glen Sather era in New York is one of the most baffling long reigns in the NHL. Sather famously said back when he was with Edmonton that if he had New York’s budget, he’d never lose a game. When he joined the Rangers in 2000, they missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons, never reaching until after the 2004-2005 lockout when they got lucky with a goalie named Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goalie of the post-lockout era except for perhaps Tim Thomas.

Sather has signed some baffling contracts in his day. In the pre-lockout days, he had a number of old free agents sign for big money deals like Bobby Holik, Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, at the end of their days. Post-lockout, he’s the man behind the contracts doled out to Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. There are other examples, but he’s never been one to shy away from signing stars. Marian Gaborik? Ranger. Brad Richards? Ranger. As a result, the Rangers already had one of the most stacked first lines in hockey last summer, and, oh, did we mention they traded for Rick Nash as well?

Here are the projected lines for the Broadway Blueshirts:

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Rick Nash – Brad Richards – Marian Gaborik
Taylor Pyatt – Derek Stepan – Ryan Callahan
Michael Rupp – Brian Boyle – Carl Hagelin
Kris Newbury – Jeff Halpern – Stu Bickel

Ryan McDonagh – Dan Girardi
Marc Staal – Michael Del Zotto
Steve Eminger – Anton Stralman

Henrik Lundqvist
Martin Biron

I can’t think of a team that has a greater split in ice-time between it’s top five-man unit and its bottom five-man unit. Richards and Nash play over 20 minutes a night, while Girardi and McDonagh play 23 minutes. The fourth liners? Stralman plays less than 12 minutes a night, hilariously low for a defenceman and Steve Eminger plays even less at 6:43. This is a team you want to play the latter half of a back-to-back.

Richards and Nash see plenty of ice-time, but Carl Hagelin, a good puck-possession winger who was slotted to play on the top line last season through their playoff run, has been known to move up onto that line for more defensive situations. Otherwise, the defensive duties are taken over by the second line of Stepan-Pyatt-Callahan. They’re more limited on depth after the Nash trade, having given up Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, and that puts the onus on their top two lines to win their individual matches. Luckily for Torts, those hockey players are very good.

Mikhail Grabovski didn’t play in the second game at Madison Square Garden last season, but in the first, Tortorella seemed fine letting him match against the top line and I’d be willing to bet that happens again tonight. Phil Kessel will see a lot of McDonagh and Girardi, and probably more against the Richards line simply based on the way the ice-time breaks down. Can Nazem Kadri handle Brian Boyle? Well, probably.

The Carlyle Effect:

Forget about the Rangers’ for a second, and look at the way that Randy Carlyle has deployed the Toronto Maple Leafs, simply by looking at how many times each of his centres has started in each zone:

  Offensive Starts Defensive Starts
Tyler Bozak 18 16
Mikhail Grabovski 12 21
Nazem Kadri 21 4
Jay McClement 3 12

Zone starts can have an effect on scoring, but also puck-possession, since winning an offensive zone face-off means the hard part is done. If I recall correctly, three of those four times Kadri has taken a face-off in the defensive zone have been after an icing call. The only time Carlyle sent Kadri there voluntarily was to match up against the New York Islanders’ fourth line. The outlying face-off went unmentioned on the Leafs TV broadcast, and much of Kadri’s success is being credited to things other than the way Carlyle has deployed him.

Not that Kadri’s been bad, it’s just his strong offensive start needs to be looked at in context.

You may have also noticed in our game recaps that I give off a list of which players took and set up scoring chances. A scoring chance is a shot taken within the “home plate” area of the offensive zone, detailed in this image here. I exclude the odd dribbler, or any blocked shot, but generally it’s good to measure which teams are getting inside the scoring area, and if their offensive attack is working to generate quality shots.

Here are the Leafs’ leaders in scoring chances taken as well as “set up”, which works similar to a basketball assist, and I qualify as a deliberate pass to a player in or unabated to the scoring chance zone and the second player is successful in delivering the attempt:

  Chances Taken
Phil Kessel 13
Nazem Kadri 8
Clarke MacArthur 6
James van Reismdyk 6
4 tied at 5
  Chances Set-Up
Phil Kessel 6
Nazem Kadri 4
Clarke MacArthur 4
Tyler Bozak 3
2 tied at 2

I bring this up mostly because there’s some criticism about Phil Kessel’s slow start, but he’s among the league leaders in shots with 20. Most of those have been quality attempts, and he’s done his part to set up chances, it’s just that nothing is going in for him.

Part of the problem is that the Leafs have a very obvious powerplay attack. Kessel takes the puck on the left wing, and if the defender is playing back, he’ll work it inside the circle to the high slot for a shot. If the defender is pressing, then he’ll wait for the weak side defenceman to sneak in behind the goaltender (usually Mike Kostka) and he’ll hit him with a saucer pass. Those are Toronto’s two plays on the powerplay, and they aren’t working. Hopefully that changes.

Anyway, Henrik Lundqvist gets the start for New York. He’s been with the leaders even strength save percentage leaders among starters for several years. Third last year with a .933, 9th in 2011 with .930 and fifth in 2010 with .929, is his recent history. He’s been shaky to start the season with a .910, but I doubt that low number lasts for too long.

James Reimer will be in net for the Leafs. He has a .929 EV SV% through his 1-and-a-period games played this season, which is pretty meaningless statistically. He had a great start, his only start, in Pittsburgh, and has a hand in the Leafs’ 2-2-0 record through two games. The Rangers are just 1-3-0 to start the year, but they’ve played some tough teams and we know they’re better. If their cold goaltending continues, however, it may be Phil Kessel’s night.

Cody Franson and Dave Steckel draw out of the lineup, Mark Fraser and Mike Brown apparently draw back in. Lineup announcements courtesy Lance Hornby.

Game Notes:

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