Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock focused on making Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak better two-way centres

 

 
 
 
 
Two years ago, Nazem Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.
 
 

Two years ago, Nazem Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.

TORONTO — If you were building a hockey team from scratch, which player would you pick first?

Sidney Crosby? Jonathan Toews? How about John Tavares, who finished second in scoring last season, and Steven Stamkos, who was second in goals? Maybe you take someone younger, like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel?

The point is you would probably start with a centre. As much as the Montreal Canadiens relied on goaltender Carey Price to get them into the playoffs, his impact might have been minimized if they also had Ryan Getzlaf or Claude Giroux positioned down the middle.

“The whole thing (starts at centre). They set the tone for everything,” said Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “If you’re a winger, sometimes you starve to death out there if you don’t have a centreman that’s doing his job. So centres are key.”

Babcock speaks from experience. During his decade in Detroit, he had two of the best in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. It was not so much that they were top-10 scorers. What made them both so effective was their strong two-way game. Datsyuk is a three-time Selke Trophy winner (awarded to the most defensively skilled forward) and a three-time finalist. Zetterberg, who is tied for the scoring lead this season with seven points in three games, twice finished amongst the top-4 in Selke Trophy voting.

In Toronto, Babcock does not have two similarly skilled centres. He does not even have a Kris Draper-type, who won the Selke Trophy while playing for the Red Wings in 2003-04.

Well, at least, not yet.

“One thing (Babcock) mentioned to me about Datsyuk is that he didn’t really know that part of the game when he first got there,” said Toronto’s Nazem Kadri, who turned 25 earlier this month. “And then by the end of it, he was winning Selke trophies because he understood how to play that 200-foot game and how to play against the best. So I’m definitely listening to everything he’s got to say and trying to translate it onto the ice.”

Kadri, along with Tyler Bozak, is what Babcock calls a “work in progress.” There is raw talent there. But it has to be developed.

Two years ago, Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.

“We went through lots of NHL goals just to show the mistakes that are being made,” said Babcock, who believes that playing defensively is a skill that can be learned. “Naz is like anybody … he’s trying hard, he’s trying to do the right thing and we have to turn him into a guy we can count on every day that comes in here and leads.”

With Phil Kessel no longer around to distract defenders and take over a game offensively, the Leafs are relying on their centres for more and more these days. Eventually, the team is hoping that William Nylander and Mitch Marner might develop into the next Datsyuk and Zetterberg. But until then, Kadri and Bozak are being leaned on to set an example for how Babcock wants the rest of the team to play.

Prior to the season, Babcock put together a highlight package of what makes Datsyuk and Zetterberg so successful. There were clips of them stealing pucks, stopping and starting in the defensive zone and supporting their teammates up and down the ice.

It was simple hockey, said Kadri, who leads the team with 14 shots. But it was also smart hockey.

“Their hockey I.Q.s are through the roof,” said Kadri, who has no goals, one assist and is a minus-5 through three games. “They just seem to know what to do in every situation. (Datsyuk’s) definitely not a big guy, but he’s smart. He outsmarts his opponents, no matter how big they are. That’s part of his takeaway hockey sense too, he’s able to strip guys of pucks and transition to offence.

“He was able to coach some of the best players in the league,” Bozak, who has one goal, no assists and is a plus-2, said of Babcock. “(Datsyk and Zetterberg) do a lot of unbelievable things out there, so whenever he gets an opportunity to compare us or give us examples, it helps for sure.

So far, it is coming along slowly. Kadri, who turned over the puck for a power play goal against Ottawa on the weekend, is still balancing between anticipating the play and cheating. And Bozak, who ranked last amongst NHL centres last season with a minus-34 rating, is still trying to eliminate some of the habits he picked up while playing on a line with Kessel.

“Sometimes when you’re not getting the success you want as quick as you want, you have to celebrate the effort. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Babcock. “We’re in a situation here where Bozak had his best game since I’ve been here and Kadri’s coming and they will have to continue to come if we’re going to be a good team.”

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Two years ago, Nazem Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.
 

Two years ago, Nazem Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.

 
Two years ago, Nazem Kadri scored 20 goals and had 50 points. He draws penalties, can create offensively and has shown to be a strong possession-based player. But if he is going to make the leap from high-risk second-line centre to someone that Babcock can rely on in all situations, he has to develop an all-around game.
During his decade in Detroit, Mike Babcock had two of the league's best in Pavel Datsyuk, pictured, and Henrik Zetterberg. It was not so much that they were top-10 scorers. What made them both so effective was their strong two-way game.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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