I went to my first Leafs game five years ago yesterday. It was the Ron Wilson/Randy Carlyle year, where the Leafs were in a good playoff position well into February, before the 18 wheeler drove off the cliff.
When we bought the tickets they were contenders, by game day, the wreckage was pretty well finished smoldering at the bottom of the hill. We were almost wishing that we didn’t have to drive to New Jersey that night, when I came across something on Twitter that made me excited for the game all over again, the Leafs had called up Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Marlies.
Before they had Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and the possibility of Auston Matthews to fawn over, Nazem Kadri was about as good a prospect as the Leafs had in the system, and I was excited to see him first hand. He’d been drafted in 2009, and had stints in the NHL, but never really lit the world on fire. He’d always get sent back down to the AHL, where he wasn’t exactly dominating either. Still he was an exciting prospect if he could ever just get it together. I saw why that night as he scored a goal early in the game to put the Leafs up 2-1 and then scored a dazzling shootout goal on Martin Brodeur to give the Leafs the victory. I was convinced then that he’d be a star, and it may have taken five years, but it looks like I was right.
After an electric start to his full time NHL career in the lockout shortened 2013 season in which he scored at nearly a point per game, Kadri fell out of favor with head coach Randy Carlyle. This was partly due to not always being committed to the defensive side of the game and partly due to what was seen as a lack of focus outside the rink. Also, Kadri never seemed to have the right linemates until Leo Komarov was stapled to his left wing at the start of last season.
Another key in Kadri’s evolution as a player was the arrival of head coach Mike Babcock. Right from the start Babcock challenged Kadri to be the player and the man he knew he could be. Kadri for his part responded to the challenges by being more focused on and off the ice and taking on the role of shutdown center, certainly a spot no one envisioned him in even two years ago.
We’ve got all the backstory out of the way, interesting though it may be, it’s time to flash forward to this season. While all of the hype has been on rookies Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, and understandably so, Nazem Kadri has been the most important player for the Leafs night in and night out.
He, along with Leo Komarov and Connor Brown, have been tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line, and on nights that the Leafs have come away with a victory, it’s gone pretty well. I’m sure we all remember the night in Toronto where Kadri not only irritated Connor McDavid to a breaking point, but also scored two goals including the overtime winner. The two teams met again in Edmonton four weeks later, with the officials more focused on the Kadri/McDavid matchup, calling Kadri for interference early in the game, but Kadri did pretty well at shutting down McDavid that night as well as scoring the game winner. McDavid did score in that game, but he was on the ice against the Bozak line as a result of being double shifted.
Some people might be worried about their eyes deceiving them when it comes to Kadri, sure it looks like he’s shutting down these superstars, but what do the numbers say. I think we can all agree that Corsi is a flawed stat at best, however, when factored with other things, it can still be fairly indicative of someone’s level of play. Despite leading the team with 77% of faceoffs he’s been on ice for being in the defensive or neutral zone, Kadri leads Leafs forwards who’ve played over 500 minutes with a CF% of 51.71. So that means that despite starting behind or even with the play 77% of the time, Kadri has nearly 52% of the shot attempts at 5v5 compared to just over 48% against.
That means he’s constantly pushing play in a positive direction for the Leafs. Now, I know there are some of you out there that think Corsi is useless. After all, you can just shoot a puck into someone’s leg and get a positive Corsi. For that reason we’ll take a look at Kadri’s Fenwick For percentage, or FF%. For those who aren’t versed advanced stats, Fenwick counts unblocked shot attempts, those that either go on net or go wide, whereas Corsi counts shot attempts of any kind. Of forwards that have played at least 500 minutes at 5v5, Kadri in second on the team to William Nylander in FF%. Nylander leads with 51.5%, while Kadri has 51.3, however Nylander has 9.9% more offensive zone faceoffs than Kadri has, which more than makes up that difference.
The fact is Nazem Kadri makes good things happen when he is on that ice at a higher rate than any other Leaf, from a more difficult starting position than any other Leafs. Think of him like a race car whose owner decides it will start in the back or middle of the pack in a short race 77% of the time, yet that car finishes near the front of the pack more than half the time. Now consider that race car being out there with the best cars and drivers in the business and still managing to come from the back to the front on a regular basis. That’s what Nazem Kadri has been able to do in terms of driving positive play for the Leafs this season.
While all the hype may be on rookies like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, as well as fantastic netminder Frederik Andersen, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not be sitting in position to make the playoffs this season without Nazem Kadri doing the heavy lifting. As impressive as those players have been, Kadri has not only held the opposing team’s superstars in check more often than not, he’s also scored 30 goals and chipped in 25 assists. He’s scored on the power play, and he’s scored at 5v5. He’s also managed to score at key points when the Leafs have really needed a goal. It’s for all these reasons that Nazem Kadri is the Most Valuable Player on the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
More advance stat information can be found at http://corsica.hockey/