Photo credit:Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Nazem Kadri is the ideal mentor for a new wave of young Flames centres
By Mike Gould2 months ago
It’s been quite a while since the Calgary Flames were this interesting.
Definitely not last year, when Darryl Sutter had them grinding their way to 2–1 final scores in a fruitless pursuit of a Western Conference wild-card spot. It was almost a relief when they didn’t make it — that season couldn’t have ended soon enough.
In his own way, Sutter “elevated” a woefully underpowered Flames team into mediocrity, the exact opposite position from where they needed to be. They were uninteresting, unlikable, and, worst of all, irrelevant. It would have been far more compelling if they were simply flat-out bad.
Now, they are. Despite some respectable underlying numbers, the Flames have lost three consecutive games to drop into 26th place in the NHL by points percentage. Calgary’s .450 mark puts them ahead of only Ottawa (.440), Seattle (.435), Columbus (.403), San Jose (.350), Anaheim (.345), and Chicago (.328).
The last three teams on that list might be impossible to out-tank, but the first three are firmly in the Flames’ sights. This club is long overdue to make another top-five pick, having done so only once in their history (Sam Bennett, at No. 4 in 2014). They’ve never made a top-three selection.
We’ll see how things unfold from here. The Flames’ early schedule has been one of the most difficult in the league, and they’re set to take on far more opponents outside the playoff picture once the calendar flips over to 2024. On the other hand, they’ve been struggling even with pending UFAs Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev in their lineup — who’s to say how they’ll fare once they’re gone?
One thing is clear: Calgary needs a new franchise cornerstone. Those are typically found in the draft, and especially near the very top. The Flames would boast the seventh-best odds of picking No. 1 overall if the season ended today, and that could improve as the year progresses.
And next year, with their own first-round pick caught up in limbo due to the Sean Monahan trade, the Flames have an even stronger incentive to finish in the bottom 10 of the league standings.
Who will play centre for this Flames team the next time they make the playoffs as a serious contender? The vast majority of successful NHL teams have at least three centres capable of driving a line and pulling their weight at both ends of the ice.
The 2021–22 Flames, the best iteration of the club in recent memory, had two in Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund; Calle Jarnkrok was intended to be the third but he struggled to adapt to playing centre after spending most of the season as a winger with the Seattle Kraken.
The Flames entered the following year with a trifecta of Lindholm, Backlund, and Nazem Kadri that looked terrific on paper but never quite coalesced as expected under Sutter’s tutelage. Lindholm has never quite recovered from the departure of former linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk; Kadri appeared to be frustrated to no end last year (who can blame him?) and fell off the map after a strong start to his Flames tenure.
Now, here we are, midway through the 2023–24 season, with the Flames seemingly on the verge of an enormously consequential sell-off. Beyond the three main pending UFAs, it’s not out of the question that guys like A.J. Greer, Dillon Dube, and either Jacob Markstrom or Dan Vladar could be sent packing before the March 8 trade deadline.
But what about Kadri, who is in the second season of the seven-year deal he signed with the Flames as an unrestricted free agent in 2022? The Flames parted with a first-round pick to bring him into the fold, after all. He turned 33 in October, but there’s a strong case to be made that he’s been Calgary’s best player for much of the season. Kadri leads this year’s Flames team with 22 points in 30 games.
At the very least, Kadri’s contract isn’t nearly as problematic as Jonathan Huberdeau’s, which has two extra years and is far more difficult to buy out. And unlike Huberdeau, who hasn’t found chemistry with anyone in Calgary, Kadri has been objectively good for large swaths of his tenure. Most recently, he’s played an important role in shepherding top prospect Connor Zary into the NHL.
Zary, who turned 22 in September, has spent a large chunk of his first 20 games with the Flames playing on a line with Kadri. The two have formed a terrific partnership, with the Flames controlling 53.47 percent of the scoring chances and 55.50 percent of the expected goals with both of them on the ice at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick).
For his part, Kadri has flat-out exuded energy in the games he’s played with Zary on his line. Both players are confident, skilled, and assertive natural centres who play off each other extremely well. Zary has spent 220 of his 258 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this year with Kadri; through his first 20 NHL games, Zary has racked up 15 points.
Perhaps as soon as next year, the Flames might be able to run a one-two punch of Kadri and Zary down the middle, with Backlund in the No. 3 spot. And if the Flames can bottom out this year (and maybe next) and draft a top centre prospect in the process, maybe Kadri could be of assistance with ushering that player into the NHL. It’s undeniably tantalizing to imagine Kadri imparting some of his wisdom upon a player like Cayden Lindstrom, who already looks to be one of the most dominant young players in the sport.
But now we’ve arrived at the elephant in the room. About a month ago, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that, while Kadri enjoys playing in Calgary, he may not be interested in sticking around if the Flames go down the path of rebuilding. He has five years left after this one on his contract, which carries a $7 million cap hit and a full no-movement clause. Kadri can’t force the Flames to trade him, but he does have a lot of control over his situation.
If the Flames do manage to land a player like Lindstrom, who could be an NHLer before he even turns 20, maybe Kadri could be enticed to stick around for what might be a quicker retool. The odds of that would almost certainly increase if the Flames were to finally win a lottery and land consensus No. 1 talent Mack Celebrini, who is tearing it up this year at Boston University. But as we all know, the Flames will never win the draft lottery, so we’ll end this fantasy right here.
In any case, what Kadri has done to give Zary (and, to a lesser extent, Martin Pospisil) a boost at the start of their NHL careers is worthy of recognition and praise. The Flames are at a stage where all their most important wins are in a macro sense. It is far more consequential that guys like Zary turn into impactful NHLers for the Flames than it is that they beat Florida or St. Louis on any given Tuesday night.
With Rory Kerins and the members of the Flames’ 2024 draft class on their way, Kadri’s presence will remain valuable as long as he continues to be the model of what a skilled, energetic top-six centre should be in the modern NHL. On a team full of guys seemingly playing out the string, Kadri is one of the few living up to his end of the bargain.
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