Why Tuesday Night was Nazem Kadri’s Perfect Game

Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

When it was realized that the line of Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri, and Leo Komarov was going to be the one that was tasked with shutting down super-phenom and all-around greatest player on earth Connor McDavid, many had their concerns. Sure, all three are hard workers, but what was Kadri going to be able to do to a player that’s bigger, faster, and younger than him? 

Sure enough, he had what could be argued to be the best game of his NHL career. The quintessential Nazem Kadri game. Much to the delight of the Leafs, of course; without that, they don’t win this game.

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The narrative of the War on Connor was set long before the game started, as the youngster waxed poetic about his days as a young Leafs fan and said that he hoped for a result similar to the first game he watched from the stands; a 4-1 loss. Kadri insisted after the game that he hadn’t heard about any of that, but that he was excited for the chance from the start.

“I enjoy playing against the top players.” said the 26-year-old to reporters post-game (via YT) “I enjoy the challenge. Obviously, I’m a pretty competitive person, so I don’t want to come out of the wrong end of that matchup. I’m going to do everything I can to do my job and help the team win.”

“Anything”, as it turns out, wasn’t much of an exaggeration.

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Right from the start, Kadri makes sure that McDavid knows that he means business. This probably should’ve been an interference penalty if we’re being honest with ourselves, but in the opening seconds of the game, you’re more likely to get away with it as a tone-setting move. But he didn’t take very long to add to it, thanks to his rookie linemate.

A strong retrieval of the puck by Brown afforded Kadri the ability to rush into the slot, tapping a one-timer into a half-open net just at the mouth of the blue paint for his fourth goal of the season. But he knew that a quick statement on the scoresheet would only get the hands and skates of McDavid more riled up. So he went back to getting into his head.

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It started working, and it spread to Oilers coach Todd McLellan’s head too, as he started double-shifting his captain just to get him to line up against different opponents. “I never expected the guy would play that much,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He’s a good player, but so is [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins.”

As Babcock pointed out, McDavid’s overall ice time crept up to 8:15 after just a single period, helped by a powerplay opportunity. That may have led to him losing a bit of his first-step advantage, simply for the sake of stamina.. Kadri, on the other hand, was sitting at roughly five minutes played, and was geared to keep going.

So he kept shadowing, and shooting, and crashing into whoever he could. His prior reputation at one point got the best of it when he recieved an undeserved diving penalty after some less-than-pleasant stickwork from Zack Kassian.

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But he didn’t retaliate, and he didn’t lose focus. The focus was on keeping his opponent off the scoresheet, out of their own element, and maybe capitalizing.

In overtime, he got that opportunity. Within seconds of the frame opening faceoff, Morgan Rielly sent him a pass. In Kadri’s words, he tried his best to create a 50/50 situation, put the puck around McDavid, and on his way to cut across, their jockey for position saw Connor lose a bit of control over his legs; a rare sight in his young career. Kadri ventured towards Talbot while grading the puck, had just enough time to slide in a deke, and the rest was history. 

The final stat line was one that would please both advocates of the eye test and the spreadsheets. At the end of the night, Kadri had two goals, a +2 rating, six shots on goal, two hits, a blocked shot, and a takeaway. When he was on the ice, Toronto attempted 56% of the game’s shots; third highest on Toronto, who were clearly outnumbered in score-adjusted-Corsi for the first time this season. More importantly, he was 10% higher than his foe, who was fourth-lowest on the Oilers while playing the most even strength minutes.

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Seeing this game took me back to the days where Kadri was considered Toronto’s best prospect, and the “saviour of the franchise” once it became clear that Luke Schenn at 18 was about as Luke Schenn as he was going to get. The shallow prospect pool and lack of significant centre depth put a lot of expectation on Kadri to succeed on the scoresheet; turning the perception and pressure on him into something he wasn’t.

But when the fans and media were busy pointing their fingers at Kadri to be the “next Doug Gilmour” (sorry, Mitch Marner; you’re next on this list), they were right for the wrong reasons. Kadri was never going to score 127 points, but he was a similarly feisty, energetic player who could control the flow of a game, piss off his opponents, and maybe grab some points on occasion.

2010/11 29 3 9 12 8 2.89
2011/12 21 5 2 7 8 4.85
2012/13 48 18 26 44 23 41.3
2013/14 78 20 30 50 67 3.77
2014/15 73 18 21 39 28 4.49
2015/16 76 17 28 45 73 1.36
2016/17 10 5 3 8 17 -0.27
Career 335 86 119 205 224 3.33

Toronto has received varying degrees of that play relatively consistently, but nights where it all comes together have been exceedingly rare. Tonight, it was perfect; he showed that he still has plenty of offensive juice in the tank, that he can go toe to toe with the world’s best defensively, and that he can still ruffle some feathers. Will every night look like this? No, but it’s evident that, despite being overtaken in hype by shiny new toys, the London-born centre has a lot left to contribute; to them, to the team, and to himself.

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“I’m not here to be a role player. I want to help this team win,” said Kadri. “I want to do everything I can to help these guys win, and in doing that, help the young kids by paving the road and set a good example by doing things right and showing them what it takes to be a professional. All those things I’ve embraced.”

While the days of leading bad Leafs teams in scoring through circumstance or lack of depth are likely behind him, nights like tonight will ensure that he’s a vital part of the renaissance.

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  • DukesRocks

    While I agree this game was one of the most stellar games Kadri has played, we shouldn’t imply this is news. Since Babcock became the coach, Kadri has been the best Leaf, period. While some have scored more, they don’t play against the leagues best or do the dirty work on the physical side of the game. The majority of the time, he does a masterful job of limiting the opportunities of his assignments. This year he knows he doesn’t have the pressure to score, because there’s more skill on this team and there’re others to help distribute the offense. Now Kadri can just concentrate on his assignments and let the offense come to him for a change.

    Make no mistake, presently he’s the alpha dog and the leader of this team.

  • Brandon

    I read this morning that some thought Kadri should have been called for interference on that last play in overtime. I don’t see it on the replays – it just looks like McDavid got outworked and out positioned. But I admit I didn’t see it live; any thoughts?

    • The Russian Rocket

      Tough call. Upon closer look, it’s clear Kadri stops moving his feet (although there is some edge-work there) while McDavid keeps his going. That makes me think it could have been a holding call but it also looks like McDavid is trying to push back and just gets out muscled. I think a no-call was the right move but I get why some Oilers fans were crying.

  • tealeaves

    Kadri appears to have taken a step forward this year. And I want to see how Kadri performs when matched up against Bergeron, Crosby, Kopitar and Toews to see if he is as effective against veterans.

    • DukesRocks

      In the Chicago game, Kadri was a -3, however, I reviewed every Chicago goal and found no fault in Kadri’s game,Leafs lost in SO. The Leafs did beat the Bruins but Bergeron I think was injured. In that game Kadri had the Backes fight and the Leafs won. Kadri held Tavares to no points, the Leafs lost badly but no fault of Kadri’s. I think taking Michalek off the Kadri Line was the best move Babcock has made.

  • Stan Smith

    Kadri has the ability to dominate games. I saw him do it in Ottawa a few years. Unfortunately, he also has the ability to disappear for games on end. He has to figure out some way to bring that every game.

  • Mohamed Mike Slack Fahmy

    Kadri needs to be put with Elite wingers, Why do the Leafs keep putting him in between 3rd line wingers. Kadri has been producing more at both ends of the ice the past 3 Seasons with 3rd line wingers than Bozak has with Elite wingers. What is it with this team’s infatuation with Bozak?

    • Brandon

      I know what you mean. He seems to have great chemistry with Nylander on the power play. I can’t help but wonder if they are a natural pair, although Nylander also looks good with Matthews. I’d also like them to take a look at a Kadri, Komorov, Marner line.

    • Stan Smith

      Bozak has been a better all around player. Both JVR and Kessel produced more points playing with Bozak than Kadri, plus Bozak has been better on Faceoffs.

      Having said that Kadri did play better under Babcock last season, and has played well this year. Plus he is getting much better on draws. I was happy to see them move Brown up with Kadri. Michalek was way to slow. Komarov is faster but not the greatest with the puck. He is good without the puck, however.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I think Babcock sees Kadri’s role as an elite shut down center, with plenty of offense if the other line falters under the pressure. It appears he has been working with Kadri’s and his passion for the game since he got here. Babcock wants him to become a Bozak plus-plus-plus. Having a center that shuts down the other teams best player and then adds a goal or two of their own completely demoralizes opposing teams. Oilers coach Todd McLellan’s saw the writing on the wall early and the rest of the Oilers got the message as well. An elite shut down center can not do it all on his own. He will often be out of position covering the other teams top player. He needs good wingers that compliment his game. Sure you can give Kadri more offensive wingers, but Babcock would not be trying to match him up against the McDavid’s of this world. I feel Babcock already has a vision for how next years Leafs will fit together.

      For coaches it often becomes a real chess game out there. Remember McLellan was sending 7 guys out on the ice after a stoppage of play. After Babcock put his five guys out, McLellan decided which five he would keep out. Babcock had to complain to the referee to get it stopped.

  • Brad M.

    When can we send Marincin to Lupul/Robidas island?
    The fact that Marincin is playing over Corrado is so frustrating and absurd. Polak too. No reason for Frankie to be treated like this. Again.
    I think Babs is the best coach in hockey, don’t get me wrong, but he still makes some odd decisions sometimes.

    As for Kadri, it’s nice seeing him succeed. I always considered him a guy with “nifty mittens” and an occasional mean streak, but not much else. It’s good that he’s becoming a solid all-around player.

  • jimithy

    Kadri can float around for the next three or four games like he usually does, he’s earned a rest, after last nights effort. Way to go Kadri see you in three or four games. Sigh.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    The last time we played the Oilers it was in Edmonton where McLellan had the final say on line changes. McDavid picked up 5 points. So if you want to put a value on Kadri’s effort, there it is.