The Stanley Cup Playoffs present a very fine line between justified criticism of a player or team, and diving head-first into hot-takery and irrational overreactions. Sometimes the former is necessary, and because of that it can be really easy to jump over the line and become a victim of the latter based on a relatively small sample size of games.
After all, you do not want to be the person calling for the trade of a superstar because they happened to hit a cold funk for three games in April or made one bad mistake at the worst possible time.
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri is making it very difficult to walk that line.
He is an incredibly valuable player to the Maple Leafs.
He has emerged as an outstanding shutdown center that also has the 30-goal ability, and is also signed for three more years after this one at a team-friendly rate of just $4.5 million per season.
Given his all-around play he is an absolute steal under the salary cap on a team that needs every possible steal it can get given its contract situation at the top of the roster.
That is the good that he provides, and why he should, in theory, unquestionably be a part of the team’s future.
The problem is that he has to actually be on the ice for any of that to matter, and he continues to take himself out of the lineup because of the often times dangerous and reckless style of game that he plays.
It showed itself again in Game 2 against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night when he was ejected for cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in the side of the head, earning himself an in-person hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
That means he is almost certainly looking at a hefty suspension that could sideline him for the remainder of Round 1, and perhaps beyond should the Maple Leafs advance.
If they do not advance, his absence might be a big reason why.
If Saturday’s incident was a one-time, isolated thing it would be a lot easier to accept it, criticize him for a selfish, dumb play, and deal with whatever consequences that might come from it. It would stink, it would be worthy of criticism, but you move on and bring him back next season without thinking twice about it.
But this is not an isolated incident.
Not only does Kadri have an extensive track record of incidents that have risen to the level of supplemental discipline, resulting in several suspensions, but this is the second year in a row he has taken himself out of a playoff series for an extended period of time due to his own recklessness and selfishness. He was suspended for three games during the Maple Leafs’ matchup against the Bruins a year ago for boarding Tommy Wingels, and while his absence may not have been the only reason, they lost two of those three games.
Because of that suspension, and because of his entire history, he has now at risk of missing a significant number with his upcoming suspension.
That can not happen, not only because it is a horrible way to play the game, but also because the Maple Leafs need him.
Emotions were understandably high in Game 2, especially with the way the game was played, and Kadri and DeBrusk were at the center of a lot of it.
Not only was Kadri briefly knocked out of the game due to a controversial open-ice hit by DeBrusk, but DeBrusk hit Patrick Marleau into the turnbuckle just prior to the cross-check. But none of that is an excuse for Kadri to lose his composure the way he did and react in that way. Now the rest of his teammates are going to be hurt by it, pay the price, and have to deal with the consequences.
All of that puts a ton of pressure on Kadri and the Maple Leafs whenever he does return to the lineup, whether it is this postseason or next season.
He has to change the way he plays. He has to stop crossing the line and being as reckless as he tends to be.
Players like Kadri are so frustrating because they shouldn’t have to resort to this stuff to make a name for themselves in the NHL and have a meaningful spot on a contending roster. His hockey talents are good enough on their own that he shouldn’t have to be a pest or play dirty to make an impact.
Especially since those hockey talents make him so valuable that the Maple Leafs can not afford to lose him when he inevitably does resort to those shenanigans that get him removed from the lineup.
At some point the Maple Leafs have to ask themselves at what point he is no longer worth the hassle, because if you can’t count on him to stay out of trouble at the biggest time of the year, what good is everything else that he offers?
Maybe they have already reached that point. If they haven’t, he shouldn’t have too many chances remaining to prove he can change.