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How Nazem Kadri's return could impact Stanley Cup Final

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Grasping onto a 2-1 series lead that appears more perilous by the hour, the Colorado Avalanche could be receiving a welcomed boost to their Stanley Cup ambitions.

Nazem Kadri is returning from a thumb injury that he incurred after getting boarded by Edmonton Oilers forward Evander Kane during Game 3 of the Western Conference final.

Kadri skated with the Avalanche on Wednesday, two weeks after undergoing surgery, while being slotted into the bumper spot on the team’s second power-play unit. Considering that teammate Andre Burakovsky is out of the lineup after blocking a Victor Hedman shot in Game 2 and Lightning star Brayden Point is missing Game 4 due to an undisclosed ailment, Kadri’s imminent return could swing the balance back in the Avalanche’s favor.

It’s a good problem to have, but the Avalanche will have to address where Kadri is optimally placed in the lineup, considering they haven’t missed a beat in his absence and the center won't be at 100 percent. Prior to the injury, Kadri was placed on a line with Mikko Rantanen and Arturri Lehkonen, a combination that boasts two elite scorers and three players who are dominant in puck battles and establishing the low cycle. In the two full games Kadri played against the Oilers, the line combined for 25 shot attempts with 15 against in 18:38 of 5-on-5 ice time, according to Natural Stat Trick. In 13 games this postseason, Kadri has recorded six goals and 14 points while the Avalanche have controlled just under 65 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 with him on the ice. Pretty, pretty, pretty, good.

Nazem Kadri hasn't suited up for the Avalanche since Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nazem Kadri hasn't suited up for the Avalanche since Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Kadri’s return will have a ripple effect throughout the lineup. J.T. Compher has been primarily tasked with serving as the former’s replacement and has performed well in the role. He helped Rantanen and Burakovsky contribute to the offensive onslaught in the 7-0 Game 2 victory, and through three games, the Avalanche hold a 64 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 with him on the ice. Compher understood the assignment, provided surplus defensive value, while making life hell for Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev.

Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin has been unstoppable — they were literally perfect game in Game 2, out-chancing their opponents 13-0 — so Compher will likely be relegated to the fourth line alongside Alex Newhook and Nico Sturm, with the goal of keeping the speedy Darren Helm-Andrew Cogliano-Logan O’Connor line intact as well. If Kadri proves to be merely a decoy, Bednar can at least rest easy knowing that Compher can manage the game well and help Rantanen and Lehkonen win puck battles.

Kadri also provides balance and more options for the Avalanche, especially when things go awry. With the MacKinnon line getting the shadow treatment from Tampa Bay’s defensive-oriented unit of Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn, Kadri, Rantanen and Lehkonen could be expected to put up a fair fight against the Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, who have been often asked to carry their offense.

As the Lightning rolled to a 6-2 victory in Game 3, the Avalanche used their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency unit of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen and in 4:40 they generated 12 shot attempts with two against, but weren't able to convert. Kadri allows the Avalanche to build more contingency plans. They can roll four elite scorers through two lines, and could perhaps stack Kadri onto the MacKinnon line, with Cale Makar as the lone defenseman as another desperation option.

It’ll be compelling to see how Kadri affects the Avalanche’s power play. Although Kadri returned to practice with the team’s second unit, the Avalanche have cooked the Lightning with five goals on 11 man-advantage opportunities, so this may be a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Makar has done an outstanding job of quarterbacking the power play, so even if Kadri can’t shoot the puck with full strength, his speed, playmaking and offensive instincts are still an asset for a team that has relied on hyper-speed zone entries and quick lateral passes to break down Tampa's penalty kill.

Kadri completed the best season of his career, while continuing to be a leading, vocal member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, embodying every aspect of what it means to be a star. In some ways, this season has been a neat little summary of Kadri’s career: a top-end scorer who is rarely the focal point of his team at any stage. He’s helped create a winning culture in Colorado, so it’s only fitting he could be the final piece of the puzzle.

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