Why Tuesday Night was Nazem Kadri's Perfect Game

Jeff Veillette
November 02 2016 01:17AM

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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

When it was realized that the line of Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri, and Leo Komarov was going to be the one that was tasked with shutting down super-phenom and all-around greatest player on earth Connor McDavid, many had their concerns. Sure, all three are hard workers, but what was Kadri going to be able to do to a player that's bigger, faster, and younger than him? 

Sure enough, he had what could be argued to be the best game of his NHL career. The quintessential Nazem Kadri game. Much to the delight of the Leafs, of course; without that, they don't win this game.

The narrative of the War on Connor was set long before the game started, as the youngster waxed poetic about his days as a young Leafs fan and said that he hoped for a result similar to the first game he watched from the stands; a 4-1 loss. Kadri insisted after the game that he hadn't heard about any of that, but that he was excited for the chance from the start.

"I enjoy playing against the top players." said the 26-year-old to reporters post-game (via YT) "I enjoy the challenge. Obviously, I'm a pretty competitive person, so I don't want to come out of the wrong end of that matchup. I'm going to do everything I can to do my job and help the team win."

"Anything", as it turns out, wasn't much of an exaggeration.

Right from the start, Kadri makes sure that McDavid knows that he means business. This probably should've been an interference penalty if we're being honest with ourselves, but in the opening seconds of the game, you're more likely to get away with it as a tone-setting move. But he didn't take very long to add to it, thanks to his rookie linemate.

A strong retrieval of the puck by Brown afforded Kadri the ability to rush into the slot, tapping a one-timer into a half-open net just at the mouth of the blue paint for his fourth goal of the season. But he knew that a quick statement on the scoresheet would only get the hands and skates of McDavid more riled up. So he went back to getting into his head.

It started working, and it spread to Oilers coach Todd McLellan's head too, as he started double-shifting his captain just to get him to line up against different opponents. "I never expected the guy would play that much," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "He's a good player, but so is [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins."

As Babcock pointed out, McDavid's overall ice time crept up to 8:15 after just a single period, helped by a powerplay opportunity. That may have led to him losing a bit of his first-step advantage, simply for the sake of stamina.. Kadri, on the other hand, was sitting at roughly five minutes played, and was geared to keep going.

So he kept shadowing, and shooting, and crashing into whoever he could. His prior reputation at one point got the best of it when he recieved an undeserved diving penalty after some less-than-pleasant stickwork from Zack Kassian.

But he didn't retaliate, and he didn't lose focus. The focus was on keeping his opponent off the scoresheet, out of their own element, and maybe capitalizing.

In overtime, he got that opportunity. Within seconds of the frame opening faceoff, Morgan Rielly sent him a pass. In Kadri's words, he tried his best to create a 50/50 situation, put the puck around McDavid, and on his way to cut across, their jockey for position saw Connor lose a bit of control over his legs; a rare sight in his young career. Kadri ventured towards Talbot while grading the puck, had just enough time to slide in a deke, and the rest was history. 

The final stat line was one that would please both advocates of the eye test and the spreadsheets. At the end of the night, Kadri had two goals, a +2 rating, six shots on goal, two hits, a blocked shot, and a takeaway. When he was on the ice, Toronto attempted 56% of the game's shots; third highest on Toronto, who were clearly outnumbered in score-adjusted-Corsi for the first time this season. More importantly, he was 10% higher than his foe, who was fourth-lowest on the Oilers while playing the most even strength minutes.

Seeing this game took me back to the days where Kadri was considered Toronto's best prospect, and the "saviour of the franchise" once it became clear that Luke Schenn at 18 was about as Luke Schenn as he was going to get. The shallow prospect pool and lack of significant centre depth put a lot of expectation on Kadri to succeed on the scoresheet; turning the perception and pressure on him into something he wasn't.

But when the fans and media were busy pointing their fingers at Kadri to be the "next Doug Gilmour" (sorry, Mitch Marner; you're next on this list), they were right for the wrong reasons. Kadri was never going to score 127 points, but he was a similarly feisty, energetic player who could control the flow of a game, piss off his opponents, and maybe grab some points on occasion.

Year GP G A PTS PIM CF%Rel
2010/11 29 3 9 12 8 2.89
2011/12 21 5 2 7 8 4.85
2012/13 48 18 26 44 23 41.3
2013/14 78 20 30 50 67 3.77
2014/15 73 18 21 39 28 4.49
2015/16 76 17 28 45 73 1.36
2016/17 10 5 3 8 17 -0.27
Career 335 86 119 205 224 3.33

Toronto has received varying degrees of that play relatively consistently, but nights where it all comes together have been exceedingly rare. Tonight, it was perfect; he showed that he still has plenty of offensive juice in the tank, that he can go toe to toe with the world's best defensively, and that he can still ruffle some feathers. Will every night look like this? No, but it's evident that, despite being overtaken in hype by shiny new toys, the London-born centre has a lot left to contribute; to them, to the team, and to himself.

"I'm not here to be a role player. I want to help this team win," said Kadri. "I want to do everything I can to help these guys win, and in doing that, help the young kids by paving the road and set a good example by doing things right and showing them what it takes to be a professional. All those things I've embraced."

While the days of leading bad Leafs teams in scoring through circumstance or lack of depth are likely behind him, nights like tonight will ensure that he's a vital part of the renaissance.

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Managing Editor of Hockey Content at the Nation Network. Just here so I'll get the opposite of fined. If you'd like to collaborate or simply have a question, email me at jeff@veillette.me
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