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We need to talk about Nazem Kadri

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What is his future with the team? And is his repeat playoff suspension really the deciding factor?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game One Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

A week ago, while the Leafs were still playing Boston and the length of this playoffs was still unknown, Bob McKenzie talked about Nazem Kadri on his Bobcast. I’ve been thinking this over ever since. And it needs a discussion.

McKenzie talks about a TV panel he was on just after the suspension was announced, and their discussion of how that might affect Kadri’s future. He relates that the panel thought the idea that the Leafs would knee-jerk get rid of Kadri because of this suspension to be absurd. They brushed it off, and McKenzie agrees, up to a point.

He quotes himself from that TV panel as saying this:

Fool me one, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, and somebody’s getting fired.

McKenzie was talking about Kadri in response to a listener question. The question was: Has Kadri played his last game for the Leafs?

Peripheral Stuff

That’s dramatic in the way fans often are when it comes to all this stuff that’s peripheral to the game. Fans of hockey spend a lot of time talking about this peripheral stuff — coaches needing to be fired, rifts in the front office, fantasy trades, who’s on the outs, who does the coach like, who does the GM like, and it never ends. It’s an entire fandom in and of itself that doesn’t actually require much, if any, interest in the game on the ice. I think it’s telling how many devotees of the peripheral stuff fandom will complain that hockey itself is boring.

There’s an entire segment of the media industry that is built around reporting and opining on all that stuff. I think it’s fair to say that segment is growing all the time, and McKenzie himself is king of the insiders, and his stature is founded mostly on what he has to say about peripheral stuff. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on this sideshow to the game itself. Particularly in a salary-cap league, decisions about players are complex and how a team is run is as important as how their players play. For some of us, business nerdery is just plain fun.

Movie Logic

A very smart person I know commented that a lot of fans and media apply what he called movie logic to this peripheral stuff. Rom-com logic might be apt. Or maybe superhero epic logic. Hockey itself doesn’t lend itself to a narrative arc you plot out in advance. Shit happens, and keeps happening, and the end result is often a surprise. Sometimes a truly shocking surprise that defies explanation. Applying movie logic to the peripheral stuff and shoehorning all the people involved into metacharacters who act out the trope-filled plot arc you can just lift from the latest blockbuster film is an easy way to make a logical story out of the chaos of sports.

It’s also satisfying because it’s so simple and drama is everywhere. Office politics are rife, the work places are toxic, and everything is decided by which way the wind is blowing that minute by emotionally-stunted, ego-driven men who are more concerned with personal slights than their actual jobs. Whatever their jobs are. Just like in a rom-com where the heroine works in some New York or London office where no one ever does any work, the actual day-to-day activity of an NHL team office, as envisioned by the peripheral stuff fandom, fades into insignificance. The satisfying denouement of any conflict is a big scene where the hero tells off the villain and triumphs through witty dialogue that was script-doctored by Joss Whedon.

In that unreal world, Kyle Dubas is going to tell Nazem Kadri to, “Pack his stuff!” and the lights will come up while we’re still applauding.

I definitely share the desire for some emotional resolution to this story of Kadri, the Bruins, and suspensions. I purposefully tried to put it out of my mind after listening to McKenzie. But on the last night, someone said something about how the players had to be feeling the palpable sense of doom hanging over the team that they might not be able to even up the game, and it was all going to be over — this was when the score was 2-1, I believe. I said, “I hope that’s eating away at him right now up there in the press box.”

It turned out that Kadri wasn’t in the press box at all. The story we got after the fact is that Kadri didn’t travel with the team to Boston for Game Seven, and he wasn’t in the arena in Toronto for Game Six. Movie logic says that the team, anthropormorphized into a single character, is upset with him and banished him. This public petulance on the part of the team is taken as a signal to us, the audience, that the team is displeased.

I think it’s possible that when Sportsnet put their cameras on Kadri in the press box in Game Three and when much was made over him leading the stretch at practice while suspended, that either the Leafs or the NHL became uncomfortable with the attention going to the player who wasn’t playing. But that’s a guess.

Nevertheless, Dubas isn’t in a movie, and he’s not shown any signs of being the sort of person who makes reactive and emotional decisions. But he does have a decision to make. Is he going to risk getting fooled a third time? As McKenzie says, there needs to be a conversation about how Kadri has now chosen twice to give someone else the power to decide if he plays or not, to use Mike Babcock’s words on the subject. And that risk has to be weighed against the value of keeping Kadri on the team.

Kadri Makes the Team Better, Right?

I was surprised by McKenzie’s take on Kadri’s value; he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea that the Leafs are a better team with Kadri than without him. Neither am I, and I haven’t been for a while. But I’m not sure that my take on this is correct. This is not a simple question about Kadri being good or not. It’s muddier.

Kadri is seen as a player on a bargain contract. His cap hit is $4.5 million. He’s under contract until the summer of 2022, which is just before he turns 32, so three more years. In the final two years of the deal, the actual salary decreases to $4 million, and in every year of the deal, $2 million is paid as signing bonus. He already has a modified no-trade clause in effect, reported by Cap Friendly to be a list of 10 teams he cannot be traded to. That clause runs to the end of his contract.

Looked at in isolation, Kadri is an experienced centre who has a physical edge, shoots at a good rate, and scores at about a league average rate, or a bit below. He’s capable of being matched to other middle six lines, and will win the battle for possession, but he’s not going to beat the top lines on good teams at that game. He’s a good passer, and can benefit from a good, scoring winger.

Kadri is not a top line player forced down the lineup by a team deep at centre. He’s likely a good second line centre on a lot of teams, but they’d need wingers better than him at driving play if he’s matched to tough competition and shooting if you want a lot of scoring from the line. He can be a checking line centre who isn’t required to face top lines. He’s more or less of a bargain, therefore, depending on the job you want him for.

To bring up a very painful example: Charlie Coyle was acquired by the Boston Bruins for winger prospect Ryan Donato, and he is 27 and has a cap hit of $3.2 million. His cash salary is rising as he enters the last year of his deal next season. He has no signing bonuses and no clauses in his deal.

He scores less than Kadri, draws fewer penalties, but takes so few himself, the net result is the same. He’s better at driving play and maintaining possession, and he does it against average competition, while Kadri’s is skewed to playing more lower-ranked lines. Coyle doesn’t have much going for him on the power play, so the big difference between them is that Kadri adds high value there.

But if you want a checking line centre, and you’re a cap-strapped team, Charlie Coyle is your guy. If you have your power play stocked with the guys who got you cap-strapped in the first place, you’re good with someone like Coyle making a modest salary more in line with the minutes he plays at even strength. Or you should be.

Kadri was a bargain when he was the second best centre on the team, playing over his head at even strength, doing well at it some nights and not others, but great on the power play to make up for it. The issue for me has never been — what is the point of Kadri if he’s just going to hand the team’s playoff chances over to DoPS to decide — but rather — what is the point of a $4 million 3C if John Tavares is the man playing the tough competition and scoring all the goals and anchoring the power play?

Many of us watching this team develop over the last two years wanted to see a true top-nine system this season, where the drops in effectiveness and goals from lines one to two to three were small steps. What we got, due to injuries, the decline of Patrick Marleau, the long contract negotiation with William Nylander, and the fizzling out of Par Lindholm, was a big step down to line three for most of the season, and, it has to be said, particularly in the playoffs.

The Leafs actually were a top-six, bottom-six team in all but ice time, and therein lies a conundrum. If the fourth line is playing less than 10 minutes a game, which is fine with a true top nine, your third line better be more than just a mediocre checking line that hosts a couple of power play forwards but can’t produce meaningful offensive threats at even strength. And yet, that’s what they were for most of the season.

Kadri is not the whole of his line, but he is the driving force of it, and his overall skillset maps pretty closely onto what they achieved. His season would look a whole lot better if William Nylander hadn’t underperformed in shooting to such a massive degree. If Nylander had just hit his Expected Goals at even strength, been average, this picture looks very different, and the line would seem to be better, and the desire to keep what seems to be a dominating centre depth would make more sense.

But the Leafs of the future aren’t playing William Nylander on the third line. He was supposed to bust out of his scoring slump and move up to the Matthews line, and then Kadri would have lost the thing that would have made him look better, if only that had happened. Whew. That’s too much speculative retroactive construction.

The Leafs of the future are not playing William Nylander on the third line as a centre either. So this question of what to do with Kadri, well beyond asking him to sign the official pledge to reform his ways right under Tom Wilson’s signature, is dependent on who the team can afford to keep, and who Kadri could be replaced with. Most importantly, it’s dependant on what the third line is supposed to achieve.

As an aside, Kadri has expressed some remorse for his actions, and takes responsibility for the suspension, which is good, but it’s easy to talk about thinking through the consequences first, and harder to do it when the rage is bubbling up.

If the Leafs can run Charlie Coyle through a photocopier, sign him to a sub $3 million deal and alter their structure away from the three scoring lines dream, and have a more legitimate and viable checking line that can match to top end talent, that’s a great plan. It puts more scoring chances on the sticks of the Tavares line and the Matthews line and it might open up some minutes for a viable fourth line to play a meaningful role. If the Leafs can’t do that, or if they think they have a better mix of wingers for next season to make the three scoring lines dread a reality, they might just have to hope Kadri doesn’t fool them again.

Data is from Natural Stat Trick, concepts of competition and usage are from Hockey Viz.