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What is it like to play against Nazem Kadri?

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Some men are born to be shutdown centres, and some have the role thrust upon them.

Philadelphia Flyers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Nazem Kadri is the Toronto Maple Leafs shutdown centre. He didn’t start out as that, but we watched him grow into the role last year when the only other option seemed to be Nick Spaling (currently playing in the NLA in Switzerland).

He talks about taking on the challenge below at the 2:22 minute mark:

It is good that he seems up for it, relishes it even, but is he any good at it?

I took the data from all of his opponents so far this year and cut it down into the set of 36 forwards he has played against the most. Mike Babcock usually matches his forwards against other forward lines, so for today, we will ignore the big time defenders who often show up when you are playing top forward lines and just concentrate on how those forwards do when facing Kadri.

While it is true that the quality of your competition levels out over a full season if you play regular shifts, this is only a part of Kadri’s play in some of his games that we are looking at, so it is all about the quality of his competition. That is the point.

The Leafs haven’t played a team more than once yet, so all of these numbers are from a single game for each person. They are five-on-five and are from the point of view of the player listed. So it is that player’s number where you see CF% With Kadri, and lower is better there. This data is from Natural Stat Trick.

Player Position Team TOI With CF% With Kadri CF% Without Kadri
Sidney Crosby C PIT 7.55 75 56.25
Conor Sheary L PIT 7.32 75 66.67
Patric Hornqvist R PIT 7.85 70.59 47.37
Henrik Sedin C VAN 9.08 62.5 100
Daniel Sedin L VAN 8.93 62.5 -
Viktor Arvidsson L NSH 7.92 60 70.83
Anze Kopitar C L.A 9.95 57.89 62.5
James Neal L NSH 13.88 57.58 66.67
Jannik Hansen R VAN 8.28 57.14 71.43
Jonathan Marchessault C FLA 11.42 56.52 62.5
Tanner Pearson L L.A 9.43 55.56 57.14
Teddy Purcell R L.A 9.15 55.56 75
Aleksander Barkov C FLA 11.12 54.17 33.33
Ryan Johansen C NSH 13.52 53.33 71.43
Anthony Beauvillier L NYI 7.37 53.33 35
Chris Stewart R MIN 9.82 52.94 77.78
John Tavares C NYI 7.65 52.63 37.5
Kyle Okposo R BUF 12.35 52.38 54.55
Jaromir Jagr R FLA 11.17 52 40
Ryan O'Reilly C BUF 12.32 50 61.54
Mikael Granlund C MIN 10.98 50 60
Brad Marchand C BOS 7.00 50 72.73
Mikko Koivu C MIN 10.93 47.62 71.43
David Pastrnak R BOS 7.10 47.06 88.89
Matt Moulson L BUF 9.42 46.67 54.55
Josh Bailey C NYI 7.35 44.44 36.84
Ondrej Palat L T.B 6.95 41.67 10
Claude Giroux R PHI 11.67 39.29 85.71
Connor McDavid C EDM 10.93 38.89 53.33
Milan Lucic L EDM 9.37 37.5 25
Brayden Schenn C PHI 11.85 37.04 75
Wayne Simmonds R PHI 11.75 37.04 83.33
David Backes R BOS 8.00 33.33 71.43
Jordan Eberle C EDM 8.67 31.25 35.71
Jonathan Drouin L T.B 6.47 45.45 11.11
Tyler Johnson C T.B 6.38 45.45 10
Average: 51.09 56.93

I sorted this list to put his biggest failures right at the top. And look who it is? If nothing else, this exercise proves that Kadri is not enough to shut down Sidney Crosby.

The Pittsburgh game is also one of the few road games in this list. The home team controls the matchups more, so while Babcock will try to get what he wants on the road, he needs the home game’s last change to achieve something like the nearly 14 minutes of shared ice time between Kadri and Ryan Johansen’s line on Tuesday night against Nashville. Kadri played 15:04 minutes at five-on-five in that game, so the matchup was nearly total.

Beyond reminders of how great Sid is, what else is there to see here? Sometimes Kadri fails. But sometimes success looks like failure. It isn’t enough to just look at a player’s CF% against Kadri and say, look how high it is! You have to look at that in context of how he did the rest of the time. Sometimes, the rest of the time is very few minutes, so take it with a grain of salt, but sometimes, most of the time, 23 times out of 36, the player’s CF% is better away from Kadri than with him.

The averages bear this out too, for all that average is a very crude summation of this data. This set of players gets almost five percentage points improvement on average, by getting away from Kadri.

I ran the same average on a larger set of data, containing all players with over four minutes against Kadri. The averages were 46 percent with and 50 percent without. So when you start adding in a wider range of competition, he shuts them down a little more and still keeps up a pace of success ahead of that of his teammates.

It is also notable that there are as many great successes at the bottom of the list as there are great failures. And those are not bad players. Connor McDavid, Claude Giroux, David Backes and Tyler Johnson were all shut down very effectively by Kadri.

It seems—and this is the results of a dozen games where he played matched up against a single line to a large extent, so remember this is not his career data—but it seems like Kadri is better than his teammates most of the time, better than the other top line a lot of nights, and he can be expected to do that right up until he hits a wall of skill that is just too tall to vault over.

He failed as well in Chicago against the Toews and Panarin lines. He failed in Winnipeg. He succeeded against Ottawa and Minnesota.

Sometimes, all you can do is make it difficult enough for the opposition. Within the context of a game, if the other team is flying and you are not, just holding their best guy to 50/50 might be as good as it gets. If they are exceptional, you might walk away from 60/40 having done all you could.

I don’t think Kadri is the best at this in the league. I don’t think he ever will be, but the better the defenders execute behind him, the more his linemates get into the role and figure out how to add in some more scoring chances, the more really rather okay he will be.

And by then, Auston Matthews will be seeing more and more of these tough matchups, and that won’t just be on the road where the other coach decides what it takes to shut him down. At some point Babcock will make that choice himself and start testing Matthews.

And you know what that means? While Matthews’ and Kadri’s two-thirds of the top nine are busy (and still managing to score), some other guy will have some fun in the sun.

Until the day comes when it’s Mitch Marner’s turn for the toughest matchup. That day might be sooner than anyone could have imagined.