In defence of Kadri’s middle way
Centre evolves into premier two-way player
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.
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.