In de­fence of Kadri’s mid­dle way

Cen­tre evolves into pre­mier two-way player

National Post (Latest Edition) - - SPORTS - in Toronto Michael Traikos mtraikos@post­media.com Twit­ter. com/ Michael_ Traikos

It’s im­por­tant to note t hat t he f ocus has changed.

Two nights af t er scor­ing twice in a 4- 3 over­time shootout win against the Ve­gas Golden Knights, Nazem Kadri tipped in his ninth goal of the sea­son in a 4- 2 win against the Min­nesota Wild. He is now tied for sixth in the league in goals. But as the Toronto Maple Leafs cen­tre stood and spoke af­ter Wed­nes­day night’s vic­tory, there was no talk about con­tend­ing for the Rocket Richard Tro­phy or pos­si­bly even reach­ing the 30-or 40-goal mark.

In­stead, Kadri brought up the Selke Tro­phy.

“Of course, I’d love to win that thing,” he told Post­media News when asked about his goal this sea­son. “I want to be in the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Be­fore you jump to con­clu­sions, this is not a col­umn on why Kadri should win the Selke or whether he is even in the con­ver­sa­tion for the award given to the league’s top de­fen­sive for­ward.

It’s far too early in the sea­son for that. And while he is off to a good start — nine goals and 14 points in 17 games — there are other two- way cen­tres who are off to even bet­ter starts, such as Anze Ko­pi­tar ( eight goals and 19 points), Sean Cou­turier ( nine goals and 18 points) and Kadri’s team­mate Aus­ton Matthews ( 10 goals and 19 points).

Rather, it’s about rep­u­ta­tions. And how Kadri, at the age of 27, has changed his.

He is no longer the player who coaches have crit­i­cized for be­ing lazy and out of shape, who was benched for not backcheck­ing, who was pub­licly shamed and sus­pended for miss­ing a team meet­ing and pos­si­bly more. He’s no longer the one- di­men­sional player who cheats on de­fence to try to score goals. He still makes the odd mis­take, like when he turned the puck over three times in a sin­gle shift against the Los Angeles Kings last week. But he’s ma­tured enough to re­al­ize you can’t win games that way.

“I never clued in be­fore that if you play good de­fence, you’re go­ing to be on top of guys, you’re go­ing to cre­ate turnovers and that leads to of­fen­sive op­por­tu­ni­ties, and it means that you’re play­ing with the puck more,” said Kadri, who scored a ca­reer-best 32 goals and 61 points last sea­son. “Just be­ing un­der­neath our wingers, sup­port­ing our ‘ D’ for easy break­outs, just lit­tle things like that.

“Play­ing in the mid­dle is a tough po­si­tion to play in this league, es­pe­cially when you’re younger. Some­times it takes some time to un­der­stand how i t works, but that’s what it takes to win. If that’s what it takes to win, we’re go­ing to do it.”

With Matthews day- to­day with an up­per- body in­jury, Kadri is go­ing to be leaned on even more. Con­sider it an op­por­tu­nity to fur­ther pad his re­sume in hopes of one day win­ning what he called the “Swiss army knife of all the tro­phies.”

Con­nor McDavid showed last sea­son that you could win a Hart Tro­phy as league MVP as a 20- year- old. And you can win a Nor­ris Tro­phy when you are 21, as Erik Karls­son did in 2012. But gen­er­ally speak­ing, you have to log some miles and lose some teeth be­fore gain­ing recog­ni­tion as the league’s top de­fen­sive for­ward.

Pavel Dat­syuk didn’t win his first of three Selke Tro­phies un­til he was 29 years old. It was his sixth year in the NHL. Ko­pi­tar was 28 when he won. Pa­trice Berg­eron and Ryan Kesler were both 26. And Kris Draper was 32, while Rod Brind’Amour was 35.

The cri­te­ria i s al­ways chang­ing — are win­ning face­offs and block­ing shots more or l ess i mpor­tant than di­rect­ing shots on net and scor­ing goals? — but it boils down to con­sis­tency. You can’t win the Selke be­cause of one good de­fen­sive year. By the time a 24- yearold Jonathan Toews won the award in 2013, he had al­ready led Chicago to two Stan­ley Cups and won a play­off MVP and a gold medal at the Olympics.

It’s a le­gacy award, based on rep­u­ta­tion and re­spect.

As for Kadri’s rep­u­ta­tion, it’s slowly grow­ing. He can still be a pest, but it’s the other team he’s now driv­ing up the wall. A game against Ed­mon­ton last year, where t he Leafs cen­tre s had­owed McDavid all over the ice, hit­ting him af­ter the whis­tle and strip­ping the Oil­ers cap­tain of the puck for the over­time win­ner, might have been the turn­ing point.

It proved to Kadri — and the rest of the NHL — that he can play against the best, even if he lost some fans in the process.

“Yeah, I don’ t t hi nk the Mid­west likes me too much,” he joked. “I’ve said that be­fore, it’s not a pop­u­lar­ity con­test. I’m not out here to win Prom King.”

Kadri fin­ished 20th in Selke Tro­phy vot­ing l ast sea­son; he re­ceived fewer first- place votes ( zero) than t eam­mate Zach Hy­man ( one), who prob­a­bly should not have re­ceived a sin­gle first- place vote. But it was a start, Kadri said.

“I felt like I kind of put my foot in the door l ast year,” he said. “You’re not go­ing t o come i nto t he league in Year One and win a Selke. That’s not re­al­is­tic. You’re play­ing 200 feet. It’s pretty tax­ing to do it ev­ery sin­gle night. That’s why I have so much re­spect for those guys that have won it and have been in con­tention ev­ery sin­gle year. I know how hard it is. So you have to re­spect that.”

Now, he’s try­ing to keep the door open.

DAVE ABEL / POST­MEDIA NEWS

Toronto Maple Leafs cen­tre Nazem Kadri is off to a strong start of­fen­sively with 14 points in 17 games, but it’s his de­fen­sive play that is draw­ing raves. With Aus­ton Matthews day-to- day, Kadri will be leaned on more than ever.

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