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1. Things are different
When the Leafs swapped out Randy Carlyle/Peter Horachek for Mike Babcock, the most immediately apparent beneficiaries were young, super-talented guys that those coaches seemed, for some reason, to really not like very much at all.
You’ve got your Jake Gardiners and your Morgan Riellys, sure, but the guy who I thought was probably going to take the biggest step forward under the new regime was a fellow called Nazem Kadri. It is rare to see a player get so badly mishandled by a coach, and then be maligned for having been mishandled, in the manner that Kadri was over the final few years of Carlyle’s tenure.
You knew there was relief that Carlyle was gone on Kadri’s part because he said just about everything he could to that effect without actually saying, “I’m glad he’s gone.” Stuff about being glad for a fresh start and all that were common in the immediate wake of the Babcock hire, but Kadri was, like, Out There with that opinion. If you wanted to talk about it, he would be more than happy.
And to this point of the season, you have to say that in some ways, the Babcock era hasn’t been going that great for Kadri. Just one goal and five assists in 16 games as the team stumbles along ineffectively is probably not how the pending RFA looking for a huge payday would have liked the season to start.
However, the amount of room for optimism here is actually massive.
2. Here’s how you know
If you’re listing the names of “Big Nazem Kadri Proponents,” the guy who’s been pretty much at the top of that list in bold, italicized, size-24 font that’s double-underlined and circled a few times is Mike Babcock.
At first maybe you could have said the talk of, “Everything I heard about him before I took this job was clearly wrong,” was just coach-speak. It would be understandable that an incoming coach would praise one of the players who caught the vast majority of the flak (unduly) the last few years, just to kind of signal that the slate has been wiped clean and all that.
But hell if Babcock hasn’t kept it up. He’s praised Kadri to the heavens at just about every opportunity, despite the fact that production like this would have had him mega-deep in Carlyle’s doghouse only a year ago.
Beyond the production (which by the way is a team-wide problem), it’s easy to see why Babcock seems to have fallen in love with what Kadri’s doing. It’s easy to see why.
So as you can see here, the fact that Kadri is running with just one goal and two assists at 5-on-5 right now has a lot more to do with shooting percentage — 1.96(!!!!!!) percent personally, 5.56 percent while he’s on the ice overall — than the fact that he’s playing poorly. In fact, you can make a safe statement that he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career.
3. There’s a “but”
But, this comes specifically because Babcock is putting him in a position to succeed. Some people would count that against him, of course, but players have no control over how they’re deployed. Moreover, it makes sense that a coach would make sure the players most likely to score are starting in the offensive zone more often than not, simply because that means they’re being utilized to their talents, rather than trying to be square-pegged into the round hole of making the roster fit the coach’s plan rather than the other way around.
Kadri shouldn’t be starting against good competition in his own zone. It isn’t his game. He’s not a two-way center. He’s a scoring center, and he’s scored pretty well even in spite of how Carlyle used him the previous three seasons. I mean, look at the difference here between the first three full seasons of his career, and how Babcock is deploying him 16 games into this one.
That’s going to have a massive positive impact on a guy’s ability to produce. Except, of course, that Kadri isn’t producing yet. However, all the stuff Babcock is saying about how it’s just a matter of time until he’s filling the net on a regular basis is 100 percent correct.
Kadri’s also getting more time on ice per game (he’s up to nearly a third of the Leafs’ 5-on-5 minutes), so the improved per-60 numbers help his case even more so.
4. How long? Not long
Right now, Kadri has 70 shots on goal in all situations and only one goal. That was one of his 51 shots at full strength, the same number of 5-on-5 shots as Alex Ovechkin, the greatest volume shooter of all time (i.e. he put 15 on net in all situations the other night).
Only one player in the league, Taylor Hall, has more individual shots on goal than that (54). Hall has five goals at full strength, Ovechkin seven. In fact, only one other guy in the current top-20 for 5-on-5 shots on goal put just one past the goalie, and that was Dustin Brown, who I think it’s safe to say has a lower “true shooting talent” than Kadri does.
Meanwhile, he also has 16 shots on the power play — tied for 10th in the league, but with way fewer minutes (about 42:30) than all but one other guy in the top-20 (Kyle Palmieri’s 15 in 39:39) — and no goals to show for it. That also isn’t going to last.
5. What to expect when you’re expecting a goal
Not that he’s necessarily going to score five goals in his next three games or anything like that, but players of Kadri’s skill level don’t shoot with that kind of volume and not-score for this long under any kind of normal conditions. Another player one may fondly recall having 70 SOG over a lengthy period with only one goal to show for it is Tyler Seguin in the Bruins’ doomed run to the Cup Final in 2013 — sorry to bring it up — and I don’t really recall him struggling too much to score after that.
Kadri is going to end up in the same boat. Obviously he’s not Seguin-level great, but even if he had a low shooting talent for his career (and he does not), you’d reasonably expect he’d have somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five goals at full strength by now, just given how much rubber he’s putting on net.
Any day now, that potential energy will be released. And no one’s going to be grinning wider than Babcock.