Does Nazem Kadri make an impact on the game with his penalties?

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski /USA TODAY SPORTS

Nazem Kadri is going to get paid, and paid in a fashion that works out pretty well for both sides. The 25-year-old centre was locked down to a 6-year, $27 million contract last week, a move so shrewd that even Kadri’s biggest critics mostly applauded the decision.

But before that all went down, I spent some time wondering what secondary components of his game would be considered valuable to the team. With all the controversy regarding referees “putting away their whistles” and Kadri getting fined for embellishment in early April, I decided to look at the impact that the “pest” side of his game was having on the games themselves.

Many will say that Kadri’s biggest asset is how he can change the game with his attitude. Sure, he can score goals, set up others, and move the puck into the offensive zone, but he can also throw a big hit, annoy his enemies, and draw a penalty or two by being a little lighter on his skates than he should be.

The latter part of that description became more of a talking point this season, as once again, Kadri led all regular (half the season or more played) skaters in penalties drawn per 60 minutes, earning 2.6 calls against per hour of 5-on-5 hockey. It’s not the first time that’s happened either; he was second last year, third in 2014, first in 2013, and was well on his way to the top 10 when he got a 21-game look in 2012. This year, the Leafs drew 5.1 penalties per 60 when he was on the ice and 2.9 when he was off; a massive gap. Simply put, Nazem Kadri creates powerplays, which should, in theory, create goals.

It didn’t work that way in practice, if only because the Leafs had an awful powerplay this year. Toronto’s efficiency of 15.4% was 29th in the league, besting only the Winnipeg Jets. Considering the fact that Toronto scored 3.5 more goals (5.4 vs 1.9) per 60 minutes when on the powerplay than at even strength, drawing 52 powerplays for your team, even if they’re bad at scoring on them, should be worth at least a handful of goals. It was, even with the powerplay being somehow less efficient on Kadri-drawn powerplays – they scored just six times, but that’s almost certainly more than they would have scored if they were at even strength for those minutes. Some better puck luck and a more skilled group would likely lead to even more of a positive impact in the moment. It also leads to fewer goals against; Toronto allowed 1.5 fewer (1.0 vs 2.5) while a man up. 

On the flip side, Kadri also takes more penalties than the average Leafs player, which is a detriment, but it’s at a rate of less than half of his drawn penalties and nearly a third of them are “even up” calls. Interestingly, Kadri was also often used as the assigned man for five bench minors this year; likely because he was the best player on the ice that wouldn’t be used on the penalty kill, and thus the best option to head on a breakaway should the opportunity arise when he jumped out of the box.

I had another thought, though: what about the game away from the powerplay that follows? Not just in the direction of Kadri drawing them, but in taking them? You see people talk about a hit, fight, goal, or whatever play “changing the momentum of the game”; does Nazem Kadri do that with his shenanigans?

I looked it up. I looked at every game this season, and how the team did from a possession, goal, and penalty perspective before and after the first penalty that involved Nazem Kadri occurred; whether drawn or taken.  Here’s what I found at first.

  • Looking strictly at the full sample (all situations) without filtering it, it doesn’t seem to make a major impact on Toronto’s possession. The Leafs are a 52.9% CF team before the first penalty of the game that involves Kadri. They’re 52.2% after it. 
  • The difference appears to come with powerplays and goals. Even taking the triggering penalty out of the question, Toronto earns nearly half an additional powerplay every full game after Kadri mixes it up. I chalked this up to more lenient referees, but their powerplays against increase by less than one every dozen games. Toronto’s goal differential also tends to go up by about a third of a goal; almost entirely out of goals against.
I then broke the sample into splits to see if I could find anything particularly groundbreaking from there.
  • It appears that penalty differential, goal differential, and shot-based possession (very slightly) all go up when Kadri is the one who goes to the box, but that the latter two go down after he draws. None of the numbers are enough to truly thread a needle.
  • I looked at score situations as well. Possession and goals go up when Kadri gets involved while the team is down while it reverses when it happens as the team is leading. That seems like natural score effects, though; Toronto’s CF% while leading at all situations is 45.6%, while their CF% while leading after Kadri causes penalty box commotion is 45.1%. The trailing numbers are similarly close as well; it’s basically impossible to assume that there’s an impact here. The team also draws more penalties when they’re down and fewer when they’re up, which is common sense human nature and also probably has little to do with Kadri. When the game is tied, possession drops by nearly 5% while everything stays the same. Truthfully, I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
  • Lastly, I looked at the time of the game in ten-minute blocks. Removing the small sample bookends where Kadri’s first incident happened in the first and last ten minutes of the game, you’ll find something vaguely resembling the idea that perhaps he can set the tone of a period. Toronto’s CF% goes up by 1.8% (50.2 to 52) when the first incident happens in the first ten minutes of the second period, which is prime “turn the game around” time for a perpetually losing team. Their goal differential in this 13 game sample goes up after the fact to (GF% shoots from 45% to 56.7%) and they receive more powerplay help. Similar spikes in goals happen when this situation happens in the first ten minutes of the third, though the possession and penalty boosts don’t tag along. 
  • Toronto appears to be in its worst shape from a possession perspective when his first incident comes during the back half of the second period, dropping from 55.5% to 46.1%. Interestingly, the goals trend the opposite way, from 42.3 to 57.1%. That’s likely helped by a 12% increase in powerplay differential, though given the team’s lack of success in that regard, it doesn’t fully explain it. Ultimately, there’s a lot of fluctuation here involving smaller, uneven samples.

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I went into this before/after data in hopes of finding a silver bullet. I wanted to find, as the narrative projected throughout the year, that Nazem Kadri’s chippier side was creating a massive impact on how the team plays as a unit. What I found was typical score effects, small samples, and a bunch of confusing noise that I wasn’t able to connect.

Maybe there is something to be found. Maybe there’s a reason that they shoot less but score more when Kadri draws a penalty in, say, the 36th minute. Maybe Kadri has an effect on another player’s psyche when he gets Cross Checked in the face. Maybe Leo Komarov scores more after seeing it, or the opposition’s top left winger is watching his back a little more knowing the game gets rougher and can’t get into a high-danger scoring area like he normally would. There are so many factors that one could consider here; I just don’t know if they’re worth the opportunity cost.

On the surface, it looks like Kadri doesn’t really tilt the tables of the entire game by drawing or taking a penalty. But as we talked about prior, the more evident impact of creating powerplays is huge and adds to his total impact on the team. Even if he isn’t changing the game using the emotions he evokes, he’s still one of the team’s most efficient offensive generators and play drivers. He’s still a player who managed 45 points despite the worst shooting spell of his career, who the Leafs locked into an extremely favourable contract.

So, does Nazem Kadri the pest add to Nazem Kadri the player? Yes, but not in all the ways that you’d think. But when the player is so good at his main job and the hijinks are so entertaining, that doesn’t matter all that much.

  • MatsSundin#13

    This chippy player leading players to win reeks of the same data mining folks used to show that fighting or intangibles like hitting was somehow beneficial.

    Player is good because he drives possession.
    Player is also a pest.
    Not all pests drive possession.

    You can replace pest above with the player that is a good leader, “character”, “fights”, “intangibles”, “hits”, size or whatever flavor of the day media spin narrative is running.

    • MatsSundin#13

      Curious how the ‘data-mining folks’ are more than happy to quantify penalties and fights and hits when making a case for their darling corsi players.

      I like Kadri’s hands and passes very much – I like his work-ethic and backchecking. I like his occasional hits and physical play. He’s turning into a very good player and a solid 2nd line center. I think he is absolutely worth the money he signed for.

      His diving, however is an embarrassment and should not be allowed to continue. I hate supporting a team that has that kind of player in the lineup.

      I’d like to say ‘I hope Babcock puts an end to this’, but, unfortunately, I think he’s actually encouraging this kind of play and that is one of the few criticisms I have of him as a coach.

      Maybe Lou will have a little chat with Kadri… It really is a blemish on an otherwise very stand-up team made up of ‘good men’.

  • MatsSundin#13

    Imo all the talent coming up is going to bump him down in the team lineup eventually. His mates will have more drive since he has the contract and they do not.

    Looking forward to all those skilled centres the Leafs have picked and will most likely to continue to pick.

  • magesticRAGE

    Bc of kadri leafs get powerplays, on powerplays we convert, converting = goal for leafs. Kadri is a penalty drawing wizard and helps the team out in many different ways

  • MatsSundin#13

    Very interesting thanks Jeffler. It looks like there is a large opportunity for the Leafs to score a ton more goals next season with the addition of skilled players if Kadri can keep impersonating Bob Ross.