There are a lot of controversial players on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster at any given time. That's how it goes in Toronto.
The one grabbing headlines this week was, for once, not Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf, but rather Nazem Kadri. The reason was that he missed a team meeting — he overslept, apparently — and it wasn't for the first time. So he was healthy-scratched by the club for three games in what is probably a rather pivotal contract year for him.
The difference in three games of missed time might not make a big deal to his point totals or bargaining position, per se, but effectively being suspended by the team for them as punishment for missing meetings might. Now the Leafs get to ask, “Is this a guy around whom we want to build our team?” Even if the obvious answer is an emphatic yes, that gives them a little more flexibility.
The tear-down of the Leafs roster as it's currently constituted is probably going to come pretty quickly. Most people expect that the club will shop Phaneuf and Kessel this summer, and probably throw in a guy like Tyler Bozak for good measure. This makes sense. They're expensive guys who are quickly approaching their age-30 seasons, which in player evaluation circles is seen as a point of no return. Even if you disagree that a player's prime is when he's about 23-26 years old, you'd have to agree that more guys than not start seeing the wheels come off their productivity after they hit the big 3-0.
And no, neither Phaneuf nor Kessel are as bad as people make them out to be, but if the Leafs hold onto them throughout a rebuild, at what point are they going to get a better value on the trade market for them than they would, say, this summer? It seems very unlikely. And if you're trading Kessel, you kind of have to trade his hop-along buddy, Bozak, whose numbers aren't even that good when he plays with an elite goalscoring winger. Without Kessel, the Bozak deal would probably be close to a David Clarkson-type disaster; a player with a big dollar value and lots of years, but who makes minimal impact.
And this is where Kadri comes in. He is — and also has been — poised to become Toronto's No. 1 center for some time now, and of late he's actually starting to get more minutes at 5-on-5, which indicates just how seriously the Leafs take his quality. Even in doling out the punishment this week, team president Brendan Shanahan acknowledged that they see Kadri as crucial to the team's future plans. So it's important to ask where Kadri can take this club if we presume he's going to be their No. 1 guy next year and going forward, and what that probably ought to cost them.
Let's start with the basics: Kadri leads Toronto centers in even-strength minutes per game, but still isn't really used as the team's No. 1 center. Bozak plays tougher competition and with better teammates; his most common collaborators are Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Kadri's are the now-traded Dan Winnik and the also-now-traded Mike Santorelli. That's a pretty sizable decline in scoring quality. And yet Kadri scores more than twice the goals per 60 minutes (0.8 to 0.3) and sets up 10 percent more assists (1.0 to 0.9). You might say that's due to how hard the competition is for Bozak, but Kessel and van Riemsdyk are both more in “Kadri” territory, so this seems to be a function of Bozak just not being good enough for the minutes he's given.
In fact, over the last three years, Kadri has outperformed in much the same way: Much more goalscoring, slightly more assists, and without the benefit of easy zone starts or great llinemates. He also makes Kessel a lot better than Bozak does:
So what this tells us is that, while he hasn't really been given much of an opportunity (Kessel's minutes with Bozak over the last three seasons are more than quadruple those with Kadri), this is pretty obviously a guy who can and does keep up with superstars. Not that Toronto's going to have many of those for him to center throughout this rebuild, but if, say, William Nylander continues on his current development path can play there for a few years before — or if — he transitions to center, then that seems like something that can work for him.
But the question is, what does his ceiling look like? Is he a franchise cornerstone in the way that Morgan Rielly seems like he could be? To answer this question we have to look at some comparables, keeping in mind that for the last three seasons he's played a second-line role in his age 21, 22, and 23 campaigns (these numbers are defined as the age a player is when the season starts, so this season is technically Kadri's age-23 year even though he turned 24 five days after it started).
Fortunately, a lot of guys have played three seasons at that age during the Behind the Net era, so we can look up their performance pretty easily to compare and contrast them, thanks to War On Ice. What's interesting here is that Kadri is grouped mostly in the middle in terms of usage: He doesn't play super-tough competition, but his one starts don't stand out as being egregiously easy either.
Based on a number of factors, I've put together a list of a few comparables by age, and we can use that to see how favorably Kadri compares.
As you can see, this is a PDO-fueled run against weak competition (and with weak teammates, to be fair) that makes him look extremely good, with comparables like Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz and Nicklas Backstrom cropping up as far as production goes. But I think that relative corsi number, and the comparables it conjures up, are interesting even if those players all played tougher minutes than Kadri. As you'll see, the percentages were never going to run that way for very long.
The competition didn't get much harder, and the teammates improved, but the numbers really started to level off here, even despite the easier zone starts. Toronto remained a bad possession team, but Kadri continued to outproduce his teammates in this regard. When he's on the ice, the Leafs are better, and that's pretty straightforward. But look at the comparables here. You're getting a lot more Jordan Staal, Matt Duchene, etc. and still have some elite players mixed in there as well. If you can get a center who scores like Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, and Ryan Johansen based on this quality of teammate, you take that pretty happily.
Finally we come to this season, and the numbers for Kadri are more or less in line with with what they were last year, but he's starting in his own zone more often than his teammates. He's keeping up the scoring despite his worst PDO in the last three seasons, and that says to me that, as a player, he's clearly improving. Eric and Jordan Staal continue to feature in the comparables, but you're also getting guys like David Krejci and Ryan Kesler as well.
In all, nine guys appeared as a comparable four times or more, with the most common being Stastny (six), and Backstrom and Eric Staal (five each). Dubinsky, Hodgson, Schwartz, Seguin, Shaw, and Toews were there four times apiece. And I think that's probably not a terrible set in which to place Kadri overall. He's probably at the low end of the group, because he's sure not Backstrom, Staal, Toews, or Seguin. But is he Dubinsky, Stastny, or Shaw? That sounds about right.
And as far as what that means he's going to be paid, the good news for the player is that Kadri certainly looks like one of those guys who's going to be helped a lot by the NHL adding “advanced” stats to their arbitration dealings. Kadri's boxcar stats — 16-20-36 in 64 games — don't jump off the page, but with the numbers settled down from those lofty highs a few years ago, and given all the other factors, he projects pretty well regardless. A number in the $5.5 million range for multiple years wouldn't be undue.
That's close to what most people think of as first-line center money, yes. And Kadri's shown that this is a group he belongs in regardless of Bozak's presence on the roster, however much longer that lasts.
So no, I wouldn't be too concerned about this missed meeting. Regardless of his perceived ”attitude” issues Kadri is still a clear No. 1 center.
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