Toronto Maple Leafs: Nazem Kadri Making Most of First-Line Opportunity

By Michael Roberts
Nazem Kadri
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The experiment of playing on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line has only lasted two games but it’s been so far, so good for Nazem Kadri.

With Tyler Bozak out of the line-up due to injury, Kadri has stepped up his play centering the line between Toronto’s top two scorers, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The 23-year-old hasn’t looked out of place as Kadri has recorded two goals and two assists while having a plus-five rating in the two contests.

The addition of Kadri to the top line has given Toronto a much more offensive trio compared to when Bozak centered the American wingers. Bozak is a defensively-solid checker and nobody would be confused as to who Coach Randy Carlyle would rather have on the ice in the final minutes between him and Kadri. However, Kadri’s offensive talents are light-years ahead of Bozak’s talents and it’s been on full display for the Maple Leafs in the past two games.

Kadri scored the game-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during his first opportunity on the top line. It was a goal set up by Kessel and van Riemsdyk, where Kadri pulled the puck forehand-backhand lifting it into the net while making Marc-Andre Fleury look silly on the play. It was the type of deke only someone with superb offensive talents could make and something Bozak wouldn’t have been able to pull off.

It didn’t take Kadri long to deliver an encore performance, as in the first 68 seconds of the next game against the Edmonton Oilers, the center’s creative passing kills were showcased when he found Kessel for the opening goal of the contest. Trapped along the boards, Kadri was able to send a perfect pass to the middle of the ice, hitting Kessel in stride as the American sniper made no mistake putting the puck between the legs of the Oilers’ goaltender. Kadri would finish the contest with his best offensive game of the season, picking up a goal and another assist to bring his season point total to 12 points in 13 games.

Kessel sits at the top of Toronto’s scoring output with 18 points while Kadri and van Riemsdyk are tied for second with 12 points each. Having all three on the same line playing the way they have in the past two games could make things difficult for Carlyle when Bozak is ready to return, as if the trio are able to continue to play at a high-level, breaking them up won’t be an option. It has also been quite a while since Toronto’s top three scorers in a season have all played on the same line.

As great as the offensive production has been, if Kadri wants to stay on the top line, he’ll need to prove he’s capable of playing consistent defensive every night. His compete level on defense has been questionable at times on the second line but he’s been able to get away with it given his offensive output. Inconsistent defense won’t fly with Carlyle on the top line. Kadri also must improve in the faceoff-dot as he’s gone 10 for 16 in the past two games, whereas Bozak averaged 52.5% at faceoffs a year ago.

Regardless, if Kadri can continue to complement Kessel and van Riemsdyk on the top line by setting up the American wingers using his on-ice vision and scoring big goals, his faceoff percentage won’t be the end of the world.

It’s only been two games, but Kadri couldn’t have asked for a better start to the biggest opportunity of his career.

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