The NHL is planning on returning to play at the end of the month - assuming everything goes according to plan. There will be a 24-team post season, with 16 teams play in a best-of-five play-in round to see who is in the round of 16 Playoffs.
The Colorado Avalanche will not be partaking in that opening round as they are a top-four team. Instead, they will play a round-robin with the other three teams in the Western Conference to determine the top four seeds. From there, they will continue with playoffs as usual. So, while the round-robin could be important in determining matchups, the real question will be what do the Avalanche have to do to go further than their second-round appearance from last season?
Nazem Kadri is Key
Obviously, everyone knows the life of the Avalanche team upfront is Nathan MacKinnon. Their superstar centre who is the focus of the opposition every night. However, MacKinnon and his linemates, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, can’t win four rounds by themselves. That became evident last season when the Avs struggled at times to find any kind of depth scoring. If MacKinnon wasn’t going, the team would struggle. The Avalanche tried to help address this by bringing in Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is a perfect 2C type of player who can slide up and down his lineup. Kadri’s season has had some mixed results, but he will be the key to the Avalanche playoff success.
Kadri missed a chunk of time near the end of the season, causing him to play just 51 games. In those 51 games, he had 19 goals and 17 assists for 36 points. This is almost a 58-point pace that would almost match his career-high. The points have not been an issue for the Avalanche, but what about looking further into Kadri’s game?
Let’s take a look at shot share (CF%) and expected goals (xGF%). When Kadri was on the ice, the Avs controlled 50.3% of the shots and 46.1xGF%. Kadri ranked 10th and 11th among 13 eligible forwards in the respective categories. The Corsi number is fine while the xGF% number is concerning. However, the Corsi number becomes a bit more concerning when you look at the Avs overall Corsi. The Avalanche were a 51.6CF% and 51.55xGF% team in total.
The Avalanche controlled shots and scoring chances at a better rate while Kadri was off the ice vs on the ice. Now, there are certain factors to take into consideration there. The biggest may be that Nathan MacKinnon was on the ice for a good chunk of minutes Kadri was off. When you have a superstar that plays in front of you, your underlying numbers may take a hit as an effect. That being said, while numbers aren’t everything, you want to see your good players excel in every possible category. Seeing Kadri at least be closer to average for the Avs forwards in these numbers would have been more encouraging.
The two biggest areas for concern when looking at Kadri’s underlying numbers may be his on/off splits and his defensive impact. Lately thought of as a “two-way forward”, that reputation may not be fair to Kadri, however, you want your 2C to be responsible in his own end. When looking at HockeyViz’s defensive impact for Kadri, we can once again see that the Avs were much stronger in their own end with him off the ice.
The big red area around the net are places where the opposition takes lots of chances from. When Kadri is on the ice, the Avalanche bleed shots from out front. However, when Kadri is on the bench they don’t let much of anything up. For postseason success, you need all lines to be rolling, but especially your top six. If Kadri can even play closer to even that will give the Avalanche a huge advantage over the other teams star players.
If the Avalanche continue to bleed chances from out front while Kadri is playing, that may hurt their chances significantly. Especially when they’re facing teams that have multiple lines to worry about, like the St. Louis Blues or the Edmonton Oilers, to name a few.
The other aspect to take a look at is on/off splits from NST. We’ve seen the Avs have done better when Kadri is off the ice but is he at least elevating his teammates? His two most commonly played with forwards this season were Joonas Donskoi and Alexandre Burakovsky. Burakovsky and Kadri had a 52.26CF% and 47.25xGF% while together. Burakovsky away from Kadri was 51.72% and 48.51% respectively. While Kadri was a 47.99CF% and 44.94xGF%. Donskoi was the opposite, with Kadri being stronger in every category away from him.
Again, some of this can be contributed to the fact that Burakovsky played with MacKinnon when away from Kadri. It’s not the end of the world that Kadri isn’t making everyone he plays with better, that’s a hard thing to do. But you would like to see the gap be closer at times. If Kadri can get back to being someone that has more results like his ones with Donskoi, instead of his ones with Burakovsky, the Avs become a much more dangerous team.
These numbers make it obvious that it’s no coincidence that Jared Bednar is trying Kadri between Landeskog and Val Nichushkin at camp. Moving Burakovsky up to play with a play-driver like MacKinnon creates a more optimal defensive lineup.
Reasons For Optimism
These underlying numbers make it look like Kadri had a horrible season. In reality, he really didn’t. Kadri was a solid player and an upgrade over what the Avs had at 2C last season. Obviously, you would still like to see Kadri perform at an even higher level to cement the Avs as a formidable team with some depth that can be tough to match.
As mentioned before, the points are in Kadri’s favor. He has always had some shooting talent and that continued this season. His shooting percentage was about 3% above career average, however, even adjusting for that he would have been close to 20 goals. As well, EvolvingHockey’s Goal Above Replacement model had him as the third most valuable Avs forward in GAR and fourth in GAR/60. That is exactly where you would expect him to be on a ranking for the Avalanche forwards. His expected numbers are well under his actual results, so while there is a bit of cause for concern, it should also be noted that Kadri has a ton of skill and it does seem reasonable for him to outperform his expected results, at least to a certain degree.
At least for now, Kadri has been skating along side Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin in practice. This line could work wonders for the Avalanche for a couple of reasons. For starters, it can allow them to be one of those teams with multiple lines you really need to look out for. Everyone knows Landeskog’s abilities, and we just discussed Kadri and his impact offensively. Those two hopping over the boards after MacKinnon comes off means the opposition can’t take a break, they need to be on their heels.
The last part of that line, Nichushkin, is particularly interesting as he could help Kadri in what was his weakest part of his game. Nichushkin is a very solid defensive forward and if he can help that line be responsible in their own end, they suddenly become a real threat in all areas of the ice. He is one of Sakic’s best additions as a general manager, and his presence allows the Avalanche to try many different things.
This is a line that almost any team should fear, especially considering it won’t even be taking the attention of the top unit. The three of these guys could work very well together and unlock Kadri’s full abilities this postseason.
Why Kadri is Key
So what makes Kadri so important to the Avalanche success? He has the perfect package of everything that is needed. Playoffs often rely on depth players making a big impact. However, they also rely on the best players doing the work too. The Avalanche have a loaded top line that should beat just about anyone in the league. However, when teams put all their effort on that top line, that’s when the second and third lines need to step up. Kadri can be exactly that for the Avalanche.
He has a history of being a player who can contribute solid offence for a team and while he’ll never be a 70-point type player, getting 45 points or so out of your 2C is extremely helpful. If he can do that and also win his matchup on the second line, you have a good outlook for a team. That is what they brought him into do and if it happens, it’s hard to argue against the Avalanche for contenders in the West.
Mix in a very solid defence group, along with some other pieces like Burakovsky, Nichushkin, and Compher, and you get the Avalanche. A team that is primed to go further in the playoffs than they have in years. To do so, they will rely on Nazem Kadri’s help to take some pressure off the top line.
And no, he’s not going to get suspended this post season - listening to Naz speak this year you can tell he’s learned and grown since his time with the Maple Leafs.