The Leafs entered Game 3 of their Round-1 matchup with the Boston Bruins shorthanded. And it didn’t show at all.
Shortly before the puck dropped at Scotiabank Arena Monday night, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced a rest-of-series suspension of Leafs third-line center Nazem Kadri for losing his cool and cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in the face in Game 2. Boston, having successfully baited its opponent into a fight, won the game, tied the series and had the momentum for Game 3. The Leafs lost a key piece of their lineup.
During 5-on-5 play in Game 3, however, the Leafs generated 50 percent of the shot attempts after sitting at 46.67 percent and 45.78 percent in Games 1 and 2, respectively. They generated 34 scoring chances compared to 27 in Game 1 and 13 in Game 2. Their 29 shots at 5-on-5 were a series high. They generated 60 percent of the game’s high-danger chances. Playing a run-and-gun style, they allowed their most shot attempts of the series, too, but the net result was their strongest game of the series territorially, a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
Andreas Johnsson isn’t a center, but he filled Kadri’s void comfortably on the first power-play unit and scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal, receiving a perfect between-the-legs feed from John Tavares and waiting out Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.
“The First power play plays a lot – I’ve been playing there a little bit during the season, too, so I know how they want to play,” Johnsson said.
“He was good,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He hadn’t been as good here lately. So it was good to see all the details in his game tonight. He’s quick, he’s smart, he can compete real hard. And tonight he had good detail in his game. It hasn’t been as good. So he was rewarded for that as well, and good for him.”
Johnsson was named the game’s first star, but Kadri’s direct replacement, William Nylander, also made a positive contribution in Game 3. Taking over as the No. 3 center, he backchecked conscientiously, most notably when he muscled DeBrusk off a puck in the Leafs zone and sparked a breakout the other way. Nylander won two of three faceoffs, had a takeway and zero giveaways and blocked two shots. His overall possession impact was negative but reflected his linemate assignment of Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown.
The sample size of power-play Johnsson and third-line-center Nylander was miniscule, of course, but was it a preview of the Leafs’ future?
The cement has dried on the Zach Hyman/Tavares/Mitch Marner line. They’re a safe bet to play together in 2019-20. While many have held their breath waiting for a long-term reunion of Nylander and Matthews, Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are pure wingers and thus fit pretty nicely on a line with Matthews, with Nylander’s center flexibility making him capable of driving his own line. In a perfect world, we could envision him next season between, say, the emerging Trevor Moore and farm-hand standout Jeremy Bracco (though the organization still considers Bracco a purely offensive weapon who might need to play in the top six, “a power play guy,” as coach Sheldon Keefe said when we spoke about Bracco’s development in February).
The point being: there are many permutations of this lineup that could work without Kadri in it. And that’s not a knock on Kadri. Sure, we can condemn his emotional behavior hurting his team two post-seasons in a row, but he obviously brings plenty as a two-way center when he’s in the lineup. He can match up against opposing scoring lines, he’s a good finisher on the power play, and he can rise up to a No. 2 center role in the event of an injury.
Kadri is also outfitted with one of the league’s more appealing contracts, carrying a $4.5-million cap hit across three more seasons after this one. That kind of contract isn’t one any GM wants to trade away too rashly, but it’s also one certain to attract interest, especially since Kadri could function as the full-time No. 2 center on many NHL teams. The pact includes a 10-team no-trade list, which is mildly prohibitive but leaves 20 potential suitors for GM Kyle Dubas to negotiate with.
Why deal away Kadri? For a defenseman, of course. The elusive right-shot, two-way, top-four presence remains by far Toronto’s biggest need. And even though Kadri’s disciplinary troubles could shave a hair off his perceived value, the skill and contract trump that. He could be just the lure Toronto needs to reel in the blueliner it seeks. Going the trade route seems like the only way Dubas will score that upgrade, because (a) the 2019 UFA market lacks any impact right-shot defenseman aside from Erik Karlsson, who is light years away from Toronto’s price range and (b) cap space will be tight for Dubas with RFAs Marner, Johnsson and Kapanen needing new deals and Marner’s contract guaranteed to smash the piggybank. Dubas will thus have to send salary out to bring a good blueliner in – a Brett Pesce type, for instance – and if Dubas remains committed to honoring his word and not trading away Nylander and his $6.96-million AAV, Kadri might be the next logical choice given he has the trade appeal to net Toronto a legitimately helpful defensive asset.
The Leafs have the playoffs to worry about for now. And if they get past Boston, Kadri will write another chapter with his team. But Toronto may as well treat the rest of Round 1 as an alternate-universe audition for a Kadri-free lineup. If it continues to function optimally without him, it will make more sense than ever to consider using him to augment the D-corps.
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