Drafted 7th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2009 entry draft, expectations have always been high for Nazem Kadri. He has featured in every edition of our Top 25 Under 25. Kadri placed near the top of the rankings in each of those four seasons, starting at #6, then climbing to 4th, then 3rd where he hung around for two years. This year, a few months before he turns 25 and graduates from the list, sees Kadri falling back to 4th.
There are some shiny new toys in the Leafs system these days, but a slight fall in the rankings shouldn't be seen as a knock on Kadri. He received two 1st place votes and six 3rd place votes, so half of our voters had him as high or higher than he was last season. The top 5 spots on this list were all tightly contested, and finishing higher than recent 4th overall draft pick Mitch Marner is an indication of just how highly Kadri's skills are prized by the Pension Plan Puppets writers.
Whether Kadri has met the initially lofty expectations that fans had for him is a matter of debate. His 107 points in 119 AHL games by the age of 22 are impressive. In Kadri's first real shot at the NHL, in the lockout-shortened 48 game 2012-13 season, he started to look like the player fans hoped he might be, scoring 44 points in 48 games while playing just sixteen minutes a night.
But the point total that season was misleading: the Leafs scored on 15.2% of their shots with Kadri on the ice at 5v5 that year, the highest on-ice S% of any player with at least 500 minutes played in the past 5 seasons. On-ice S% is subject to a lot of luck, and the next season his on-ice S% fell to a much more reasonable 8.6%, resulting in a pretty big drop in scoring.
Over the past two seasons Kadri has scored 89 points in 151 games, settling into his role as Toronto's 2nd line centre and scoring about as much as a 2C should be expected to. But it's worth asking whether that's really Kadri's ceiling. Over the past 5 seasons, Kadri has scored 1.94 points per 60 minutes of ice time at 5v5. The only Leafs to outscore him during that span are Phil Kessel (2.13) and Joffrey Lupul (1.99). Kadri is slightly ahead of James van Riemsdyk (1.87) and way ahead of Tyler Bozak (1.52). It certainly looks like the primary thing holding Kadri back from better scoring numbers is his ice time, not his skill.
Scoring isn't the only skill that Kadri has, though. His penalty drawing ability is elite. Over the past 3 seasons, Kadri is 1st in the entire NHL in penalty differential per 60 minutes played. In that time, he has drawn a remarkable 89 penalties, 20 more than the next closest player! Kadri's penalty-drawing ability alone may be worth a couple of points in the standings each season.
In recent years there's been an increasing focus among fans and teams alike on the importance of neutral zone play. In particular, we've learned about the importance of gaining entry into the offensive zone with control of the puck (and, conversely, of preventing the other team from doing the same). Kadri is the best player currently on the team from the standpoint of zone entries. In 2013-14 (the only year for which I have neutral zone data), Nazem finished 2nd in zone entry success rate, lagging only Phil Kessel. Kessel successfully carried the puck into the zone on 79% of his zone entries, while Kadri had a success rate of 70%. Both players were far above the next most successful player, Tyler Bozak, with 56%.
Kadri's strong neutral zone play is reflected in his possession numbers. Over the past 3 seasons, Kadri is 2nd among Leafs forwards in Corsi relative to his team-mates, with only Clarke MacArthur having a better Corsi Rel during his time as a Leaf. If you restrict the total to players with at least 50GP for the Leafs in that span, Kadri is 1st among forwards and 2nd among all Leafs (with Jake Gardiner coming out a bit ahead).
All of this is to suggest, I think, that 2014-15 should finally be the year in which Nazem Kadri is given a shot at being Toronto's #1 centre. His scoring rate, possession ability, and penalty-drawing acumen are all high-end. Given a 1 year deal by a management team that seems to want Kadri to prove himself, now is the time to see if Nazem can be the 1st line centre that fans always hoped he could be.