This is Nazem Kadri’s opportunity.
With Tyler Bozak expected to miss at least a week because of a lower-body injury, the Toronto Maple Leafs are counting on Kadri to fill his spot as the first-line centre between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel. If Saturday night’s showing against the Pittsburgh Penguins was any indication, Kadri is well-suited for that promotion, even if it’s just a short-term one.
Kadri scored the game-winning goal and felt comfortable with his new linemates almost right away.
“They’re good players, so you usually just have to be at the right spot at the right time and the puck is on your stick,” Kadri said. “We’re all on the same page, offensively.”
Of course it took some time for the new-look first line to find some chemistry.
“I think the first maybe the first period or two we were feeling each other out a little bit,” van Riemsdyk said. “But the only way to really develop that chemistry is to play with a guy and have that continuity with that. Obviously Naz is a really skilled player. It definitely makes the transition easier.”
Kadri had first-line-calibre numbers in 2013: 18 goals and 26 assists in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season. A restricted free agent this past off-season, he signed a US$5.8-million, two-year contract with the Leafs.
Bozak has long been partnered up with Kessel, and coach Randy Carlyle likes to keep pairs like that together. But a lower-body injury suffered Friday in Columbus forced change, and Kadri made a good first impression on the first line.
“Nazy played hard,” Carlyle said. “He made some plays through the neutral ice. There was a little flopping around there a few times, diving around, but not many guys can go in and make that play that he made to score the goal.”
Kadri’s goal came on a pretty passing play from van Riemsdyk to Kessel to the front of the net. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t do much to stop that much skill working in sync so well.
“It was good,” van Riemsdyk said. “The spacing we had on that play, I think that was pretty much what set it all up is the kick wide, the drive and then Naz found that perfect set of ice where he could just walk right into the net.”
It was the kind of play that showed tangible evidence of chemistry. But van Riemsdyk cautioned that “I still think we can get better.”
They’ll likely have some chances, beginning with the Leafs’ game Tuesday at the Edmonton Oilers. Toronto could have winger Joffrey Lupul back after missing two games with a bone bruise in his foot, but Carlyle expected Bozak to be out for a little while.
The Leafs play at the Calgary Flames on Wednesday, then at the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. After that, they don’t play until Nov. 7 when they host the New Jersey Devils.
Barring a setback, Bozak would be ready to return for that Devils game, so Kadri’s promotion is likely to be just a cameo appearance.