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Leafs Spotlight: Naz

Hawks fans know, or at least the ones that have been around awhile, that when your team doesn’t have much it’s easy to focus on what it isn’t and what it doesn’t have than what it does. Leafs fans have only been doing that for over a decade now, since the last time they mattered in any sense (even though they’ve always thought they mattered). That does to the players on the team, where the focus is on what they aren’t than what they might actually be, as a fanbase pines for better days.

It feels like that’s what happened to Nazem Kadri. Back when the Leafs had nothing, he basically played with nothing. Tyler Bozak got to play with the one, top-line winger they had because they lived together and Bozak went on Kessel’s hot dog runs or something. Kadri was always just too small or didn’t quite score enough or didn’t justify the hype or was just a bit too much of an asshole on the ice.

Funny how when you actually ice a representative team a player can come alive. While Matthews and Marner and Nylander have stolen all the headlines, Kadri is having a near-incredible season under the radar.

The easy stuff first, Kadri has already passed his career high in points and blown out of the water his career high in goals, and there’s still 13 games to go for the Leafs. His previous high in twine-denters was 20, and he’s at 28.

What really makes Kadri’s season stand out and glitter is that he’s been getting the dungeon shifts for the Leafs. He’s seen the amount of shifts he starts in the defensive zone leap from 31% last year to 38.5% this year, and no forward on the Leafs is seeing harder competition. Kadri has become one of the more irritating checking centers in the Eastern Conference if not the league. Ask Sidney Crosby how he feels about dealing with him for a night. You’ll get a fair few expletives.

Of all the centers who have started more than Kadri’s 38% of their shifts in the defensive zone, only Backlund, Kesler, and Koivu have a better relative Corsi than Kadri’s in relation to his team. And only Koivu can match his 51 points, with 52.

I’m still not sure what to make of the “Average Distance of Shot” category on Corsica, though it seems like at least a reasonable measure of chance-quality while being a bit rough around the edges. There is a huge improvement for Kadri this year, which would help explain his points-jump. His average shot-distance is a full five feet closer this year than last year, from 30 to 25, and over three feet better than he had ever accomplished in his career. So not only is he taking on the hardest competition and shifts, and not only is he flipping the ice, but he’s getting better chances than before. Thus, he’s averaging more individual scoring chances per 60 minutes than ever before.

Better yet for the Leafs, he”ll remain a bargain for the next five years. He’s on $4.5m cap hit until the ’22-’23 season. Consider that they’re paying Bozak $4.2m and you see just how much of a bargain it is. And at 26 he should be right in the middle of his prime, while outscoring the likes of Couture, Giroux, and Kesler.

It was there all along. Leafs fans just couldn’t see it.