As far as auditions go, this was pretty eye-opening.
Yes, it came against the Florida Panthers, and yes, it was only because Tyler Bozak was taking a rare night off due to what the Toronto Maple Leafs were calling a “maintenance” day.
But, even so, youngster Nazem Kadri’s initial taste of life on a new-look line with Phil Kessel was rather impressive – and could be a sign of what’s to come down the road.
The Leafs won their second last game of the season 4-0 in convincing fashion on Thursday night in South Florida, scoring four times in quick succession to turn it into a laugher early.
Kadri to Kessel was the connection on the third and fourth goals, with the pair’s chemistry noticeable specifically on a 2-on-1 against Brian Campbell where Kadri’s pinpoint pass made Kessel’s first of the night an easy one.
Three minutes later, Kadri’s fanned shot became Kessel’s 19 of the year, pushing him back into sixth in the league scoring race after he finished in that spot a year ago.
The underlying message, albeit against a downtrodden Panthers team?
No Bozak? No problem.
“I've always wanted to play with Phil just because he's a world-class player,” Kadri said after the game. “I want to make myself better by playing with those type of guys. He really opens the ice up out there for you.”
“We just thought with Bozak, he's been worn down and we wanted to give other people more of an opportunity,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We're about trying to get some people going, too."
The Leafs have a difficult call to make on the 27-year-old centre in the off-season, as Bozak has emerged as not only Kessel’s linemate but also best friend and roommate, often acting as the dressing room spokesman for the ultra-shy superstar.
But Bozak’s ice time and point totals are such the past two years that he and his agent (Wade Arnott, who also represents Kessel) have an eye on a substantial pay raise from the modest $1.4-million he’ll earn this season.
If the asking price gets too high – indications are it’s already in the $4.5-million a season or more neighbourhood – there remains the very real possibility that Toronto will need to consider its other options down the middle, and pairing Kadri with Kessel is probably the natural choice.
While neither are particularly strong defensively, the pair could work in an offence-first role by starting plenty of shifts in the opponent’s end, much like Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has employed the Sedin twins – to great effect – in recent years.
That would then leave the heavy lifting to other lines, potentially helping limit the amount of time the Leafs spend in their own end.
At the very least, Thursday’s encouraging results will give Toronto GM Dave Nonis a wee bit more negotiating leverage in the off-season, as the trio of Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski and Jay McClement – who assisted on the game’s opening goal – showed they can hold down duties down the middle.
Especially if Grabovski can rebound from what’s been a very trying season.
That Leafs coach Randy Carlyle’s experiment worked was beneficial in other, more tangible ways, too.
While Florida “earned” last overall with the loss and was simply dreadful in doing so, this was a two points Toronto needed to solidify their position as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
More and more, that No. 4 versus No. 5 slot appears to be where the Montreal Canadiens will land, too, and given their meetings this season, that’s a matchup that probably favours the Leafs more than a date with the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals.
Toronto also needed a pick-me-up game en route to the playoffs, as they had been wilting in their last five games and were running out of road to get out of that mini-funk before the end of the regular season.
Now, the Leafs have a lopsided win under their belt and can go into Saturday’s finale against Montreal with a little more swagger, especially given they have fended off the challenge from the New York Islanders and can now finish no lower than sixth in the conference.
They also have the knowledge that, should they need it, they’ve got a budding Kadri-Kessel connection they can go to in a pinch.
“I had fun tonight,” Kadri said. “It’s always good playing with those type of players who can kind of find you when sometimes you don’t even expect the puck.”
Fraser steps up for Kadri
Kadri’s often-useful tendency to be a pest was also on display on Thursday, as big Florida defenceman Alex Petrovic took exception to their battle and threw a punch at him in front of the net with the game already out of hand late in the second period.
That spurred a bit of a brawl – which included goalie James Reimer coming out of his net to the blueline and contemplating joining in when it appeared Jacob Markstrom was involved – that ultimately ended with Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser getting tossed out of the game for jumping into the fray to defend Kadri.
“A couple whacks were exchanged and then he kind of just threw his gloves off and I didn’t even realize we were going to go at it until he punched me square in the face,” Kadri said. “I got a fist in the face. I think that’s why Fraz did what he had to do. I gave [Petrovic] a couple in there [down on the ice] as well and I don’t feel too bad about it.”
“Nazzy, that’s part of his game,” Carlyle said. “He’s got to have a personality out there and sometimes he rubs people the wrong way. But he’s got to defend his honour.”
Kadri also thanked Fraser for helping in that department.
“I love it,” he said. “That’s the character of our team: Everyone sticks up for each other. Any single person on our team would do it for him, too, so I think that’s the big difference with this Maple Leaf group this year.”