The Toronto Maple Leafs were already in tough to pull out a seven-game-series victory against a Boston Bruins squad stacked with talent up and down its lineup, but when Nazem Kadri was handed a three-game suspension on Friday for his hit on Tommy Wingels, things got even more challenging for Mike Babcock and Co.
Kadri is an integral part of Toronto’s lineup, so naturally, fans and analysts have weighed in on what his absence from the Leafs’ lineup will mean for the outcome of a series that has already provided its fair share of talking points.
With that in mind, NHL editors Josh Wegman and Flip Livingstone debate whether Toronto will sink or swim without its second-best center anchoring the middle of the ice.
Leafs will struggle without Nasty Naz
Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, David Pastrnak, and Rick Nash – a menacing crew of Bruins forwards you don’t want to be squaring off against without your No. 2 centerman in the lineup. But that’s exactly the task the Buds face for the next three contests.
Kadri might not be as flashy or as talented as Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, but he’s arguably just as important to Toronto’s success, given his ability to play a complete game. A re-commitment to the defensive end since Babcock’s arrival in 2015 has seen Kadri take his all-around ability to the next level, a fact showcased by his back-to-back 32-goal seasons.
In addition to leaving a big hole down the middle on the top power play (he was a 50-percent face-off man during the season), Kadri’s absence will also be felt when matching up against the physical forward group mentioned above. His tenacious nature and sandpaper approach would have been crucial to the Leafs’ plan over the next few games – a plan that will obviously need to be altered ahead of Game 2 on Saturday night.
Nothing against Andreas Johnsson or Patrick Marleau, the two forwards tasked with filling the majority of Naz’s minutes, but they don’t make up for the all-around quality that will be missing while Kadri serves his three-game suspension.
The obvious loss of scoring punch is mitigated by the rest of Toronto’s potent lineup. But what it lacks is grit, aggressiveness, and a commitment to playing a two-way style. Three things that have become Kadri’s trademark. — Livingstone
Leafs are capable of taking 2 of 3 without Kadri
Even without Kadri in the lineup, the Leafs are still capable of winning two out of the next three games to even the series upon his return.
Will they be in tough to do so? Yes. Is Kadri a big loss? Certainly. But, in no way should anyone be sticking a fork in the Leafs just because they’ll be without their No. 2 center for the next three games. But for this prophecy to come to fruition, other players will need to step up and a few battles will have to go Toronto’s way.
First, Matthews needs to be much better. He had an even rating in Game 1, but the Bergeron line owned him. For the Leafs to be successful, Matthews and William Nylander can’t be hemmed in their own end for entire shifts at a time. It’s easier said than done, but they can’t let Bergeron and Co. dictate the pace of the game.
The Leafs’ special teams needs to step up. They went 0-for-3 on the power play and the Bruins went 3-for-6. If Boston’s PK is going to give Marner tons of time and space on the power play, he needs to take advantage and shoot the puck.
Last, but not least, Toronto’s top D pairing of Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey can’t be anywhere near as bad as they were in Game 1. If they show signs of it early, Babcock needs to break them up and give rookie Travis Dermott more ice time.
A lot has to happen, but the Leafs are deep enough to go toe to toe with the Bruins without Kadri, as long as they play to their ability. — Wegman
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)