Photo Credit: Peter Llewellyn/USA TODAY Sports
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri will probably never live up to the wildest ‘he’s almost like if you combined Doug Gilmour with Wayne Gretzky’ expectations foisted upon him by a landslide of fortunate bounces during the lockout abbreviated 2013 campaign, but he may yet emerge as a bona fide top-line centre.
Kadri, 25, is still in his statistical prime and for the first time in his career has received plum first-line opportunities for the Leafs for an extended stretch. The early returns on the ‘Kadri as first-line pivot’ experiment – in particular his negative on-ice goal differential and his three points in six games – aren’t awe inspiring, but if you look a bit deeper, there are signs that Kadri may be poised to breakout in a major way. And for real this time.
What stands out when looking into the small sample underlying numbers that Kadri has managed in his short stint as a top-line centre, right off the bat, is his sky-high shooting rate so far this season. Kadri has taken the fourth most shots of any NHL player so far, and he’s doing the bulk of that shooting at 5-on-5. In the past Kadri profiled as more of a playmaker than a shoot-first centre, but that seems to have changed as he’s been a willing and frequent triggerman in the first few weeks.
Among all NHL forwards who’ve logged at least 50 minutes so far, Kadri ranks fourth in shot rate – just ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Ovechkin. He’s a top-10 player by individual shot attempt rate too, according to hockeyanalysis.com – which suggests that this isn’t just a matter of him hitting the net at a higher rate of frequency over a small sample of ice time.
Though Kadri is raining shots on goal in the early going, the goals haven’t come yet. He’s only converting on 3.7 percent of his shots so far, way off of the 12.1 percent conversion rate he’s managed for his career. If this is more than just a blip and Kadri’s mentality has legitimately changed, if he’s looking for his shot more, then we probably shouldn’t expect his personal shooting percentage to regress all the way to his career norms. Still, he’s very likely to find the back of the net and score in bunches if this keeps up.
On the defensive side of the puck, Kadri appears to be mostly holding his own while facing top competition regularly. Though the skilled 25-year-old pivot is slightly underwater by shot attempt and unblocked shot attempt differential, the Leafs are actually outshooting their opponents when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5 through six games.
The pending restricted free agent has also managed a 48.5 percent faceoff winning percentage, which if it holds up, would be the best win rate of his career. Usually I’d be pretty confident that Kadri’s high early faceoff percentage is just noise and likely to regress as the sample expands, and it still may, but it’s worth noting that he’s well over 50 percent in both the defensive and offensive zones and below 40 percent in the neutral zone. Talk to enough NHL centremen and they’ll tell you that they generally keep their best, go-to moves hidden from opponents until the result of the faceoff might reasonably lead directly to a goal for or against. So this is worth keeping an eye on.
When it comes to league-wide talking points Kadri’s auspicious start hasn’t really been more than a blip on the radar in the early going, probably because his astounding results have been underlying rather than results-based. That’ll change as his percentages normalize (he’s currently carrying an on-ice shooting percentage below 6 percent, and an on-ice save percentage below .900). He’s also had some iffy moments and in particular has been more undisciplined in terms of taking penalties than you’d like to see (though he’s still in the black by penalty differential).
It looks to me, both by the eye test and the numbers, like he’s in the process of reinventing himself as a more willing and frequent shooter though. It also looks like he’s found some decent early chemistry with James van Riemsdyk, though their partnership remains something of a work in progress.
Combine his impressive underlying results with his solid handling of increased responsibility at both even-strength and on the power play, and you may well have a recipe for a breakout campaign. Certainly there’s a lot of positives to be taken from the early returns of Mike Babcock experimenting with Kadri as a top-of-the-roster piece.