Revisiting the Nazem Kadri Trade

When the Toronto Maple Leafs completed their 2018-19 season, they had failed once again to get past the dreaded Boston Bruins during the first playoff series. When the season concluded, general manager Kyle Dubas had some heavy lifting to do. His defense was weak and, as the general manager, he faced salary-cap problems brought on in part by expensive contracts being paid to no-longer-worth-the-money players like Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev who had been signed by his predecessor Lou Lamoriello.

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It’s also fair to say Dubas had contributed to the salary-cap issues by negotiating expensive contracts with William Nylander and Auston Matthews that would cost the team into the future. But those were “his” team-building choices and the attendant problems that arose would be “his” to fix. Obviously, Dubas will be responsible for those choices for several more years.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the 2019 offseason, Dubas moved several Maple Leafs players. Among them were Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and four players who moved to the Ottawa Senators – some by trade and some as free agents – Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Tyler Ennis.

Why Nazem Kadri Had to Be Traded

One player remained who, eventually, Dubas decided should be moved. That was Nazem Kadri. When Dubas signed now-captain John Tavares as a free agent when his New York Islanders contract expired after the 2017-18 season, the writing was on the wall for Kadri. Matthews was emerging into a superstar center and Tavares would be the other; Kadri’s salary-cap hit – as team-friendly as it was – was simply too was much to pay a third-line center. In addition, his trade value was simply too high to convert him into a winger when cheaper wingers were options.

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At the time, there was also an uprising among some Maple Leafs fans – not all by far – that Kadri was playing out of control and that his playoff suspensions held the team back and could not be tolerated. True, Kadri played with a sense of vigilante justice and couldn’t help but stand up for teammates. That he was regularly penalized by officials for such behavior, and seemingly at the least opportune times, caused many to believe his play had become a problem for the team and it was time to let him go.

As much as I didn’t agree with that sentiment, sadly I also believed trading Kadri was necessary for the team. What I didn’t like about the trade was that, in Kadri, the Maple Leafs had a player who bled blue and white and probably bled it literally and to a fault.

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Kadri simply didn’t want to leave Toronto and tried everything he could think of to stay. The Maple Leafs were a team he had grown up with; and Toronto, as tough as it was to play in and for as much criticism as he faced, was his town. He said as much to the fans.

“10 years. What can I say,” Kadri’s post read. “Words cannot describe what [Toronto] means to me. You welcomed me in as a boy and watched me grow and evolve in front of your eyes. … Forever a special place in my heart.”

On July 1, 2019, Kadri was traded to the Colorado Avalanche with Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round pick in exchange for Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot, and a 2020 sixth-round pick. Kadri had seen the writing on the wall, and after turning down a trade to the Calgary Flames, he agreed to be moved to the Avalanche.

Kadri’s former teammate and current St. Louis Blues player Tyler Bozak noted that Kadri was an “unbelievable” acquisition for the Avalanche. Bozak believed Kadri was “obviously a guy who is built for the Central Division. He plays hard. He plays tough. And he can put the puck in the net.”

Fast Forward: How Has Nazem Kadri Done in Colorado

I’ve followed Kadri’s seasons with the Avalanche, and I’ve hoped they would be a good seasons. I liked him as a player when he played for the Maple Leafs. Honestly, I can’t imagine I’m alone in retaining loyalty for former favorite players even when they move to opposing teams.

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kadri experienced his typical regular-season success during the 2019-20 season, but sustained a serious lower-body injury in early February in a game against the Minnesota Wild. That injury might have caused him to miss the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but COVID-19 intervened. On the date of his injury, he had scored 19 goals and 36 points in 51 games.

During Round 1 of the playoffs, the Avalanche disposed of the Arizona Coyotes quite handily. In Game 1, Kadri scored the game-winning goal in his team’s 3-0 victory. The Avalanche, a team that eventually lost to the Dallas Stars in seven games in the Stanley Cup semi-final, dominated the Coyotes. However, goalie Darcy Kuemper held the Avalanche scoreless for 53 minutes. Finally, Kadri scored a power-play goal, and the Avalanche erupted for two more goals during the next two minutes. That goal was Kadri’s second goal of five points during four postseason games.

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Kadri then scored two goals and added an assist in his team’s 7-1 win over the Coyotes in Game 4. Both goals came on first-period power plays and were scored less than four minutes apart. By adding a second-period assist, Kadri now had four goals and nine points in seven postseason games.

The Avalanche then finished off the Coyotes with another 7-1 victory in Game 5. Again Kadri scored two goals. His first goal came on another power play, and he’s been getting first-team power-play minutes partnering with Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. Kadri’s second goal came late during the first period when he broke in alone on Kuemper.

Eventually, Kadri and his Avalanche teammates were eliminated from the playoffs. However, Maple Leafs fans rooting for the 29-year-old London, Ontario-native should be pleased. Kadri had a good first season and a great first postseason with his new Avalanche teammates. He’s played regularly in the team’s top six as the second-line center and during his first Avalanche playoffs he went on to score three goals and four assists during the semi-finals against the Stars and in 15 total playoff games scored nine goals and nine assists for 18 points.

During the 2020-21 regular season, he played even better and seems to have found a home in Colorado. For the depth of the personal pain he experienced, he’s landed well. Congratulations to him.

Wishing Kadri Luck During the Remainder of the Postseason

I get it that sports is a professional enterprise and that players are movable commodities. That’s a cost Kadri paid for earning a salary in the millions each season. But I also appreciate loyalty and love when players have a chance to finish their careers – if they choose – with teams they really want to play with.

As a result, when Dubas traded Kadri last offseason, I was of two minds. First, I wasn’t fazed that Kadri’s postseason suspensions had drummed up an outcry from Maple Leafs fans that he had to go; however, I knew teams had to be built and that Kadri was a valuable trade chip. It was time to trade him.

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However, I also loved that he tried hard to stay and turned down a Flames trade because he saw a chance to play with his beloved Maple Leafs. I’m pleased for Kadri that he seems to have found a second home in Colorado with the Avalanche. In addition, watching Dubas over the past season and knowing that players stay in touch even if they no longer play together, I believe many of those still employed with the Maple Leafs feel the same way.