"What's wrong with Nazem Kadri?"
Welcome to the semi-annual conversation here in Toronto Maple Leafs Land, the happiest hockey hell on earth. The team isn't winning – which isn't unusual – and the blame needs to be doled out.
And, because Phil Kessel has exited stage left to score elsewhere, other candidates are getting more of the headlines.
Kadri, the Leafs' 25-year-old centre, has six points in 12 games. His coach, Mike Babcock, has been praising him relentlessly, going so far as to call Wednesday's loss one of Kadri's best games of the year.
He was held pointless and was minus-2 in 18 minutes ice time.
"I thought he played excellent," Babcock said. "To me, when you do good things, [points] happen over time. There's no sense getting wound up about that. Keep playing.
"You shoot the puck [that much] and he'll score goals in bunches."
So far, he has only one.
But this isn't a coach breaking out kid gloves for a struggling player. It's a veteran coach who knows what he sees on the ice and what it means.
Kadri has played well – perhaps as well as he ever has in the NHL – despite the points not materializing.
What he does have is 48 shots on goal – four a game – which was good for eighth in the entire league entering Thursday's games. He also is pushing the puck in the right direction, with a 51.4-per-cent possession rating on a team in which that will be a priority all season.
We know from a 250-game body of work earlier in his career that Kadri doesn't typically just throw junk shots on goal.
He had a solid shooting percentage of more than 12.5 per cent before this season; if you take that combined with four shots on goal a game, it's a 40-goal season.
That combination of volume plus accuracy is typically only possible for the best of the best snipers in the game – think Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, etc. – so it's a bit much to expect Kadri to end up there. But 20 to 25 the rest of the way is reasonable.
We also know tactics have changed under a new coach. Babcock, like many other top coaches, preaches that a high shot volume is rarely a bad thing, as shots mean you're getting looks at the net and likely getting rebounds.
Eventually, you get goals.
Even if Kadri's shooting percentage is going to drop this season, if he continues to play this much and shoot this much, he's almost guaranteed to set a personal best in goals and probably lead the team in scoring.
Babcock knows it. Kadri knows it, too, and his postgame scrums with reporters have become remarkably repetitive in the early going.
"It's a bit ridiculous at this point," Kadri said. "You think you'd get some puck luck here or there."
The criticism of Kadri seems to come from the obsession with point production in small samples we still have in hockey. All around the league, early in the year, great players such as Tyler Johnson, Marian Gaborik, Jakub Voracek, Matt Duchene and even Kessel are getting the same questions when their struggles are being heavily influenced by percentages – theirs and their linemates – they often have little control over.
In soccer, there are so few goals that this kind of preoccupation is now less common, and players are often evaluated on other new measures, such as expected goals, which include shots, locations and types.
With the NHL down to about five goals a game, minus empty-netters, that's probably a worthwhile switch for this sport to begin to make.
"Most soccer analysts wouldn't use points at all," explained Richard Whittall, a Toronto-based soccer analyst for publications such as The Guardian. "Players can go on major streaks and over-perform their expected goals in a way that isn't sustainable."
Or under-perform, as is the case with Kadri right now, who is listed in the NHL's top 30 in quality scoring chances on war-on-ice.com.
The other shift that needs to happen is in expectations. Scoring is so low in the NHL that only 19 forwards hit the 70-point mark last season. Only 78 had 50 or more. That means that – with 90 players playing on first lines leaguewide, even on many good teams – 50 to 60 points is a good total for your second- or third-best forward.
The past three seasons, Kadri has averaged 55 points per 82 games played – despite almost never playing on a first line or power-play unit. On a per-minute basis, he has produced roughly as much as Joe Thornton, David Krejci and Jarome Iginla at even strength the past three years.
That's a much bigger sample size than the 12 games this season. And it stands to reason that with better linemates such as James van Riemsdyk, more ice time, more power-play exposure and far more looks at the net, he should produce over the longer term – even on a weak Leafs team.
So what's wrong with Nazem Kadri?