Following a disappointing end to the 2020 NHL Playoffs Qualifying Round for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the arguments are going to be aplenty. I mean, what in the world could the Maple Leafs need from Nazem Kadri with the talent they have in their lineup already? But it goes far deeper than what he showed on the score sheet and is more of what the Maple Leafs missed in their play-in series with the Columbus Blue Jackets is that little bit of edge. And that’s exactly what Kadri brought to the lineup.
While Leafs Nation somewhat celebrated the trade that sent Kadri and his contract to the Colorado Avalanche on July 1, 2019, in exchange for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot, looking back it raises the question of whether or not the Maple Leafs moved their heart and soul player that day.
A History of Question Marks
What hurts the discussion of Kadri’s importance to the team is his history of questionable hits come playoff time. In fact, each of the past two years, Kadri earned suspensions that cost him the rest of the Maple Leafs’ first round series against the Boston Bruins both in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Not only did he miss the remainder of each series, but it left the Maple Leafs without one of the players that brought a physical edge to their game and got under the skin of his opponents.
See, like a handful of other players around the league, Kadri plays on the edge. His game straddles the line of what is deemed acceptable and not in the game of hockey, but it makes him a successful player at both ends of the ice.
Even if it did leave the Maple Leafs shorthanded on a number of occasions, the way he played the game and played hard on each and every play is somewhat irreplaceable without the right pieces in the lineup.
While he’s remembered for his hits on Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk and Tommy Wingels in consecutive first-round playoff series, what people forget is that Kadri is a two-time 30-goal scorer who also stopped Connor McDavid to ultimately win the game for the Maple Leafs once upon a time. He’s a two-way player that developed into a legitimate NHL centre.
But his history of crossing the line played against him. His salary and questionable plays forced the Maple Leafs to make a decision and ended up leading to the end of his Maple Leafs’ career.
What the Maple Leafs are Missing
Playing on the edge or not, there’s no question that Kadri played with fire, physicality and for the teammates that skated with him. After all, his last suspension in a Maple Leafs’ uniform was in response to a questionable hit on veteran teammate Patrick Marleau.
As a teammate though he was more valuable than many gave him credit for – especially against teams like the Bruins and, this year’s opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets who both play a similar physical game.
While the Maple Leafs are a team littered with talent, they sometimes lack in getting under the skin of their opponents and channeling their physical side of the game.
Enter Kadri – who over 19 playoff games with the team spanning four seasons averaged almost three hits per game. But it was the intangibles like aggravating the Brad Marchands and Jake DeBrusks of the game that made him so irreplaceable.
Sure, the Maple Leafs added Kyle Clifford to their lineup, but his game differs from Kadri’s in that he isn’t so much of a pest as he is a grinder. Both types of players are needed. Both are valuable in their own way.
Regardless, the Maple Leafs are still lacking that get-under-your-skin type of player. The one that can drive opponents nuts and still be a valuable offensive and defensive commodity. Marchand is that type of player for the Bruins. Kadri used to be that type of player for the Maple Leafs.
Even now, look what he’s been able to add to the Avalanche during their round robin play. In nearly 20 minutes of ice-time per game, Kadri has four points in three games, including a literal buzzer beater that got his team a win. Three of his points have come on the power play as he’s an asset in front of the net and he has thrown four hits with no penalty minutes over that span.
Can a player change? Without a doubt. But even as a player who might’ve taken a step back from that line he teetered on so often, Kadri has been a valuable addition to the Avalanche and a major missing piece for the Maple Leafs on their playoff journey.
Either way, the team remains without the right pieces to get over the hump come playoff time with their series against the Blue Jackets just another example of that. A defeat that leaves more questions for Leafs Nation, than answers.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.