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Flames need more from Kadri during playoff push

Calgary Flames Nazem Kadri - Getty Images

As the Calgary Flames desperately try to stay in the Western Conference wild-card race, prized free-agent acquisition Nazem Kadri is playing fewer minutes than anyone anticipated last summer when he signed one of the biggest contracts in franchise history. 

Kadri, Calgary’s lone All-Star this season, has not scored in 14 games but has eight assists over that span. Over the past three games, he has averaged 13:06 of ice time, well below fellow pivots Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund.

In the team’s 7-2 victory in Vegas on Thursday, he played a season-low 12:35, centering a line with Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis, two-thirds of Calgary’s usual fourth line. Kadri, who signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Flames in August, played the third-fewest minutes of any Flame and won just four of 12 faceoffs that evening. 

“[Veteran, top guys] have to be better players,” Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said on Saturday ahead of the team’s 6-5 overtime loss to Dallas, when asked about Kadri’s diminished ice time. 

Kadri attributed his recent struggles to bad luck, but said Saturday that he’s focused on staying consistent.

“It’s okay,” he assessed of his recent play. “Some good, some bad. For the most part, I’m pretty consistent, but obviously you want to see a few more breaks go your way, maybe a couple of pucks go in the net – disallowed goal, shootout goals. These obviously don’t count that much, but you stick with it. Obviously things are going to turn your way.”

When asked about his decreased ice time, Kadri said he was focused on what he could control.

“Of course, that’s out of my control,” he said. “Any time I step on the ice, I’m going to be ready to go.” 

Versus the Stars, Kadri played 13:01, seventh among 12 forwards, and was a minus-2. On Dallas’ third goal, Kadri lost the faceoff and didn’t pick up his man, Wyatt Johnston, who tipped the point shot home. He also didn’t get a shift in overtime, despite the extra session lasting nearly the entire five-minute maximum.

Kadri’s production has dropped in 2023 after an impressive opening three months to his Flames career.

His points-per-game average has dropped from 0.76 to 0.63, despite getting a majority of shifts in the offensive zone. Outside of rookies Walker Duehr and Jakob Pelletier, and newcomer Nick Ritchie, Kadri leads Flames forwards in five-on-five offensive zone start percentage (66 per cent). That’s well above Backlund (54 per cent) and Lindholm (53 per cent).

He’s also been less noticeable away from the puck. While many thought he would replicate Matthew Tkachuk’s energy and tenacity, Kadri doesn’t look nearly as physically or emotionally engaged as the former Calgary star. Defensively, he’s had struggles with faceoffs, checking, and picking up his man around the net. His minus-15 rating is easily the lowest among all Flames players.

While much of the talk about the Flames has been about Jonathan Huberdeau’s transition to a new team, Kadri appears to be struggling with making a similar adjustment.

In Colorado, he was used to lateral puck movement and creating quality scoring chances off the rush – a far cry from Sutter’s system, which prioritizes shot volume and winning puck battles in the corners. 

It might also have something to do with linemates. With the Avs, he spent significant time at five-on-five with Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Valeri Nichushkin. Kadri tallied a career-high 87 points in 71 games last season under those circumstances.

This season, he has 49 points in 70 games. Sutter has blended lines frequently, and Kadri has had a rotating cast of wingers that has included Huberdeau, Lucic, Andrew Mangiapane, and Dillon Dube.

Despite a lengthy run together, Kadri and Huberdeau didn’t quite gel offensively as hoped. As the coach has tried to coax more production out of a group he’s far too often said “needed one more goal,” Kadri is now playing with depth wingers in Lucic and Lewis while others get those opportunities.

A crucial dozen games remain for the talented and gritty Kadri to get his game back on track, including a back-to-back in Los Angeles and Anaheim starting Monday.

The Flames (31-24-15, 77 points and third in wild-card race) remain in the hunt and have a real shot at catching Winnipeg for the second wild-card spot. To string together more wins, however, they’ll need their highest-paid player to elevate his level – with and without the puck – and give Sutter no choice but to play him more than the 13 minutes he’s been at recently. 

Calgary’s postseason chances might depend on it.