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NHL Trade Rumors: Will Leafs Move Nazem Kadri?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been the center of NHL trade rumors all season and the focus has now turned to center Nazem Kadri.

Nazem Kadri
Nazem Kadri

Jan 18, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri (43) prepares to shoot the puck against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens 5-3. Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every week there’s new NHL trade rumors surrounding a Toronto Maple Leafs player and the trade market. This is nothing new for Nazem Kadri, whose name has been in the NHL rumor mill pretty much since the 2010-2011 season as he was not progressing through the system as some had hoped. Kadri essentially got the Jason Spezza treatment from the Leafs: despite being drafted in 2009, Kadri had just 51 NHL games under his belt at the start of the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

There is good reason for this, as Kadri is not an overly sizable player with Hockey Reference listing him at six-feet and about 190 lbs. One problem with young players coming into the NHL is that many of them are not physically able to handle the grind of an NHL schedule for seven months; you only need to look at the injury history of players like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to see that.

Kadri is still a very talented center despite his size and he plays with an edge to his game that is good to see out of a small-ish young player. Sometimes he goes a bit over the line – like when he ran goaltender Niklas Backstrom and earned a suspension for it – but it’s usually better to be a bit overzealous than the other way around.

One concern I’ve seen many fans have with regard to Kadri is the steep drop-off in point production from last year to this year. In the lockout-shortened season, Kadri’s 82-game pace was 75 points. This year, it’s just 52 points.

A lot has changed from last year to this year for Kadri, though:

  • Kadri was sheltered in his minutes for most of last year, finishing eighth out of 11 regular Leafs forwards in CorsiRelQoC, a measurement of the difficulty of opponents faced. He was essentially facing third line competition strictly from the Eastern Conference and that’s about as easy as it gets for ice time.
  • Kadri’s top line mate last year was Clarke MacArthur and anyone that has watched MacArthur this year knows the Leafs made a huge mistake in letting him go. Playing with MacArthur (291 minutes), Kadri was a plus-10 at five-on-five. Without MacArthur on his line (330 minutes), Kadri was a plus-8. That second number is still very solid, but represents a drop-off in plus/minus and there was also a drop-off in puck possession (47.8-46.4).
  • Kadri is playing sheltered minutes again this year but the Leafs have been getting their teeth kicked in possession-wise so no one’s really noticed (not to mention those dang Western Conference games). Kadri’s top line mate this year is Phil Kessel and that’s usually a good thing; with Kessel (264 minutes), Kadri is a plus-1 and sports a 48.2 CorsiFor-percentage. Without Kessel (368 minutes), Kadri is a minus-7 and that possession rate drops to 45.3-percent.

That plus-minus is worrisome, but I’ll get to that in a little bit (note: those last set of numbers are as of Saturday night i.e. before his two assist game).

Kadri’s strength is not goal scoring, it’s his stick-handling and vision. He doesn’t need to score 25 goals a year to be a productive player and though he has that ability, it’s probably not the best use of his skills. But therein lay the problem.

A couple of days ago, I talked about on-ice shooting percentage and the effect it has on point production. If you want an explanation of on-ice shooting percentage, it’s in that link.

Kadri led all NHL forwards in on-ice shooting percentage last year at 14.44-percent and that number is over 60-percent higher than the NHL shooting percentage average. Think of it this way: Sidney Crosby hasn’t cracked 14-percent in any NHL season since 2007 in which he’s played at least 30 games, so either Kadri became a better play-maker than Sidney Crosby last year or he and his line mates just hit a big streak of fortunate bounces that resulted in a bloated point total for Nazem.

That brings us to problem number two: the perception that Kadri is failing to live up to expectations that he himself set last year. While in the strict sense of that line of thinking it is true, it’s a complete fallacy to think that he would have come close to living up to the expectation set last year. Rather, the start of this year should be seen as a continuation of last year and that would give Kadri 67 points in 85 games in the regular season in the calendar year 2013. That pace would give him 64 points in 82 games, much more in line with his talent than the 75 point pace he had in the lockout-shortened season.

Of course, 64 points is still a very good campaign. There were only 58 forwards in the NHL that cracked 60 points in 2011-2012, the last 82-game season, which would put Kadri as one of the top two point producers on an average NHL team.

The final question is why on Earth would the Leafs trade him? Sure, if they get blown away with a deal then they can. But those that are quick to hop on the Tyler Bozak bandwagon because of his performance this year would do well to remember the performance from Kadri last year, and then remember that Bozak’s career 82-game rate (in about three full seasons) was 46 points coming into this year. His 82-game point pace this year is 73 points.

The Leafs do expect Dave Bolland to return soon(ish) so it seems that they would slot Bozak at 1C, Bolland at 2C and now Peter Holland at 3C. That would seem to make Nazem Kadri expendable, though I’m not sure that you want Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland as your top two centers for the foreseeable future. Kadri is probably the top play-maker on this team and losing the player that leads all of your regulars in puck possession is a bad move unless the return is mind-boggling (and that doesn’t happen often in the NHL with players of this caliber). Then again, this is the team that let MacArthur walk and bought out Mikhail Grabovski so as Kevin Garnett would say, anything is possible.

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