It was a rare day off in their season and a large group of Toronto Marlies had gathered at Nazem Kadri’s spacious downtown condo to hang out and watch television together.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top prospect, however, had other plans.
“Naz just came flying out of his room in full mini-stick goalie gear,” said defenceman Mike Kostka, Kadri’s teammate with the Marlies during the NHL lockout and now with the Leafs, “and he had two sets of nets and the whole thing.
“Guys came over thinking they were just going to watch TV. Instead, they ended up having a big tournament. That just speaks to the inner kid in Naz. He just likes to have fun.”
Few young players have had more fun than Kadri this season.
After spending most of the past 21/2 years in the minor leagues, the 22-year-old centre from London, Ont., has surprised the hockey world in his first full season with the Leafs, becoming one of the NHL’s leading scorers with 40 points in 40 games entering Saturday night’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens.
His spirited play has made him an instant fan favourite, and injected excitement into a Leafs team that is on target to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Numbers tell the interesting story of Kadri’s season, and help explain things. But luck has played a large role. He has been remarkably fortunate with “the hockey gods” – as coach Randy Carlyle has been known to describe it. The hockey gods are being especially generous to the player teammates think of “like a little brother.”
As luck would have it, Kadri got off to a fast start, scoring his way onto the Leafs roster with a hat trick in a training camp scrimmage, setting him up for a key role to start the year.
The pucks have rarely stopped going in since, whether they’ve been off Kadri’s stick or his linemates, with opposition goaltenders posting an abysmal .847 save percentage when he has been on the ice at even strength.
That number means that the Leafs have had a 15.3-per-cent shooting percentage whenever Kadri has played, nearly double the league average (7.91 per cent) and the highest of any forward to have played 30 games in the past six seasons.
By comparison, the average shooting percentage when Sidney Crosby, the world’s top player, has been on the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins in those years has been closer to 12.5 per cent – roughly 20-per-cent less than Kadri.
Meanwhile, Phil Kessel, the Leafs’ top scorer the past three seasons, has registered an average of about 8.6 per cent, even while scoring at least 30 goals each year.
Much of the work with hockey’s budding advanced statistics over the past few years has centred on these shooting and save percentages. They are considered some of the most volatile figures in the game because they often involve a high degree of randomness – or luck – from one season to another.
A player could shoot a puck in the same fashion, from the same location, time and again in a game with a different result each time. One shot might hit three skates and go in. Another may be an easy save for the goaltender.
That’s why players like Kessel are fond of saying they’re “not getting the bounces” when they’re in a slump. Scorers intuitively know that part of what determines whether they hit the back of the net is simply out of their hands.
With many top players on the ice for 600 or more shots a season, even as little as a 3-per-cent decline in their on-ice shooting percentage can mean they are on the ice for 20 fewer goals in an 82-game season.
And that means fewer goals and assists for them individually.
While someone such as Crosby has the talent to boost his team’s scoring prowess consistently by 50 or 60 per cent above average, the majority of players are unable to do so for more than random bursts of 40 or 50 games. They commonly see their point totals drop off, as the percentages do.
That’s why, just as young Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle posted nearly a point-a-game while on the ice for a fortuitous 12.8-per-cent shooting percentage last season, many statisticians believe Kadri’s point-a-game pace is as unsustainable as they come.
“It’s unreasonable to expect this to continue,” said Eric Tulsky, a Harvard graduate whose company, TZ Quantitative Analytics, provides analysis for multiple NHL teams. “Unless we believe Kadri is by far the best player of this era, we have to assume that in the long run he won’t see as many shots go in and his point scoring rate will drop sharply – perhaps by 40 to 50 per cent.”
As Eberle knows, one lucky season can set unrealistic expectations that are nearly impossible to follow. After scoring 34 goals and 76 points in 78 games last season in a breakthrough year, he was rewarded with a six-year, $36-million contract that makes the 22-year-old one of the highest-paid young players in the game.
Eberle’s on-ice shooting percentage has fallen to the league average this season. He’s on pace for 30-per-cent fewer goals and what would be roughly 20 fewer points over a full 82-game season, from 15th in league scoring to out of the top 50. It’s what some predict for Kadri.
That’s not to say the 22-year-old is not an NHL-level player or can’t develop into a better one. What it does suggest, Tulsky says, is he is likely to settle in as a secondary scorer who averages 50 to 65 points a season. Ice time and better linemates will also always be a factor.
The Leafs have a difficult decision in the summer when it comes to Kadri’s next contract – as did the Oilers with Eberle’s a year ago – and the tiny sample size by which to value his worth.
Several player agents surveyed by The Globe and Mail recently noted Kadri is an especially curious case, as he spent most of his entry-level contract in the minors and exploded at the NHL level, something that almost never happens.
They believe a compromise – a three- or four-year deal for middling money – might be necessary until he proves long term how good he is.
“It’s going to be a contract based on his future potential and what he’s expected to do versus what he’s done,” one agent said.
The Leafs organization has done its best to tame expectations even as Kadri unexpectedly continues to sit ahead of superstars such as Pavel Datsyuk and Rick Nash in the NHL scoring race.
“The thing I would say about Nazzy is his body of work is very small,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said recently, responding to questions after Kadri was feted (and kissed) by Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner. “I think we all have to recognize that. If he does have a setback – hopefully he doesn’t – we’re still dealing with a young player that’s learning a lot about the game.
“But I can’t do anything but give him credit for what he’s done so far. ... I couldn’t stand here and tell you he’s just a flash in the pan because he’s put the work in and he’s done a good job.”
Dallas Eakins, Kadri’s coach with the Marlies for 21/2 years, echoed those sentiments, saying he wouldn’t bet against one of the most competitive and skilled players he has ever had on his teams.
But Eakins, who has been part of the organization since 2006, also said that he hopes the fans and media who have already compared the young player to Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour are more understanding than they have been in the past if Kadri does come back to earth.
“We as an organization and we as a city have set up so many players for failure here,” Eakins said. “They come in and people say ‘who does [former Leafs defenceman] Carlo Colaiacovo play like? You know what – he’s like Paul Coffey!’ I’m like ‘are you [expletive] kidding me? Can we compare him to someone else? How about can he just be Carlo Colaiacovo?’ And then when [top prospect] Morgan Rielly showed up – right away, ‘do you compare him to Paul Coffey?’ Can we just let them develop? Can Nazem Kadri just be Nazem Kadri? That’s the only thing I worry about.”
Kadri seems unconcerned with talk of ups and downs to come. He’s already dealt with coaches criticizing him to reporters, and saw his face splashed on the front page of a newspaper with a soother in his mouth, since being drafted seventh overall four years ago.
Even if his dream season has involved more than a few lucky bounces going his way, he believes it was about time a few did.
“Man, I’ve faced so much adversity already,” Kadri said. “Maybe the tables have turned a little bit, and it’s all success from here. I’m sure there’s going to be some peaks and valleys, but I have to make sure I get over it.
“Right now, I think I’m playing some pretty good hockey still and helping this team win. At the end of the day, that’s really the goal.”
Players in top 30 in NHL scoring with less than 16.5 minutes of ice time per game (since 1997-98):
Scott Gomez (‘03-04)
Nazem Kadri (‘12-13)
Andrew Brunette (‘01-02)
Joe Nieuwendyk (‘97-98)
Petr Sykora (‘98-99)
Scott Gomez (‘99-00)