Luckily for the Maple Leafs, Nazem Kadri had an incredibly unlucky season in 2015-16.
That sentence shouldn’t make sense, but in this case it does (I think). Kadri was thrust into the first line centre role last season, by default, and he performed quite well considering the circumstances. The team was a ragtag group, hence Kadri becoming the de facto number one centre. They were also more or less built to lose and lose they did. The team finished 30th in the league, but it may have been the most positive last place finish in NHL history. The fanbase “embraced the tank” in Mike Babcock’s first season behind the bench and things went exactly as planned. The Leafs finished 15th in CF%, a massive improvement on the Carlyle years, and finished with the worst PDO in the league which helped them finish dead last, which helped them win the draft lottery, which allowed them to select Auston Matthews first overall.
While owning the league’s lowest shooting percentage can be attributed to both “bad luck” and a lack of shooting talent, Kadri shooting 6.5% on the year can probably be attributed to the former. Kadri threw 260 shots on net last season, 84 more than his previous career high of 176, and converted at a rate more than 4% lower than his career 10.6 shooting percentage. While this is very unfortunate for Kadri, it was very fortunate for the Leafs. Kadri became an RFA at the end of last season and only had a 17 goal season to bring to the bargaining table, instead of the 27 or 28 goals he would have scored if he shot at his career average 10.6%. This resulted in Kadri signing a team-friendly six-year contract with a $4.5 million AAV. By the way, DTMAboutHeart’s wins above replacement (WAR) model really liked Kadri’s ’15-16 campaign as well, despite the puck refusing to go into the net.
The 2016-17 version of the Maple Leafs looks a lot different than the ’15-16 version. The Leafs ice seven rookies every night, including three kids you may have heard about, Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Still, Kadri is facing the opposition’s top lines once again and, once again, Komarov is on his wing. Rookie Connor Brown is most often the other winger, but the moral of the story is that Kadri is being thrown to the wolves for the second year in a row and he is succeeding again, though this time around he isn’t battling horrific puck luck.
While much has been made of his defensive play thirty games into the season, Kadri has ten goals on 91 shots, AKA he’s converting on 11% of his shots, right around his career average. What’s even more encouraging is that DTMAboutHeart’s expected goal model has Kadri fifth in the league in terms of 5v5 individual expected goals, behind only Joe Pavelski, Connor McDavid, Jeff Skinner and, yes, Auston Matthews. I’d say that’s pretty good for a “shut down centreman.” Even more encouraging than that for the Leafs is that Marner ranks right behind Kadri, Zach Hyman ranks 14th and van Riemsdyk ranks 18th. In other words the Leafs have five players in DTMAboutHeart’s top 20 ixG performers and three are rookies. I think I was right when I suggested the Leafs just might be the best offensive team in the NHL.
Kadri’s relative shot attempt differential numbers check out as well, as corsica.hockey has Kadri as a 1.31 Rel.CF% when adjusted for score, zone and venue. This is pretty much identical to where his Rel.CF% ended up last season (1.33%). The difference this year being that there is a lot more skill to go around the other forward lines than last year especially since, usually, neither of Kadri’s wingers are close to the team’s best. Now the opposition often has to deal with either JvR-Bozak-Marner or Hyman-Matthews-Nylander when Kadri isn’t on the ice, two of the very best offensive lines in the NHL. Kadri even shut down McDavid so well one night that he had TSN Edmonton employees calling for his head.
Time to run Kadri. Don't care who does t.
— Dustin Nielson (@nielsonTSN1260) November 30, 2016
All Kadri really has to do is keep his head above water when he’s on the ice against the opposition’s best players to put the Leafs in a good position to win, but, to no one’s surprise, he seems set on doing much more than that.