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Tavares, Maple Leafs tough to match up with at center, opponents say

Free agent signing gives Toronto 'impressive' depth with Matthews, Kadri

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

OAKVILLE, Ontario -- How many NHL teams have the luxury of a 32-goal scorer as a third-line center, like the Toronto Maple Leafs do in Nazem Kadri?

 

[RELATED: Matthews has no issue with Tavares about Maple Leafs captaincy | NHL Free Agent Tracker]

 

San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture can't think of many.

Such is the depth the Maple Leafs have at the position after signing free agent John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract July 1. The move dropped Kadri to No. 3 behind Tavares and Auston Matthews, and gave coach Mike Babcock, considered one of the better tacticians in the NHL, plenty of options.

"They're going to be tough to match up against for teams, especially in their own division," Couture said at the NHLPA Golf Classic this week.

Video: Projecting the Maple Leafs' lineup for 2018-19

New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, the Hart Trophy winner last season as NHL MVP, said he expects the Maple Leafs to be especially strong at Scotiabank Arena, where they will have the last change.

"There's going to be some mismatches for sure," Hall said. "You'll probably see them have a very good home record with Babcock being able to match up and really have the players he wants out there.

"[Tavares] went there because they're a strong team, they have a bright future. I think everyone sees that."

Couture had hoped Tavares would sign with the Sharks, who made a strong pitch to land the former New York Islanders captain in free agency. 

"There are a lot of good centermen but to find those three on the same team, that's impressive," Couture said.

Kadri pointed to the strength the past three Stanley Cup champions have had at center as a source of encouragement. The Pittsburgh Penguins were led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up the middle in 2016 and '17. The Washington Capitals had Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller at center last season.

Tavares (84 points; 37 goals, 47 assists), Matthews (63 points; 34 goals, 29 assists) and Kadri (55 points; 32 goals, 23 assists) combined for 202 points last season, another cause for optimism.

Kadri, 27, said he has no issues playing behind Tavares, 27, and Matthews, 20, though his ice time could get cut. 

"Winning is the most important thing to me," Kadri said. "I don't care where I play, I don't care what role I play."

Tweet from @43_Kadri: I saved u 91 this time...welcome home @91Tavares pic.twitter.com/J2rM3IC4XD

Kadri said he's never seen Tavares, his teammate with London of the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09, as excited as he's been since joining the Maple Leafs. When Tavares signed, Kadri tweeted, "saved u 91 this time...welcome home @91Tavares." The tweet included a photo of Kadri wearing No. 91 with London while sitting beside Tavares, who wore No. 61 at the time.

Much has changed since then, including the fact that Tavares wears No. 91 and Kadri No. 43. But Kadri said the biggest difference in Tavares from their London days is his increased speed.

"Right from the beginning he was so gifted, he was just so much better than everyone else," Kadri said. "His hands and hockey sense were just off the charts.

"But he's worked on his skating since I saw him recently and obviously played against him the last few years. It's been a big improvement for him."

That type of work ethic already has rubbed off on some of his new teammates who met him this week.

"It's just motivating us to work even harder," forward Josh Leivo said. "He works really hard so I think he pushes us even more in the gym.

"It's exciting to have him on our team."

But not so much for the rest of the NHL.

Video: Sneak peek of Tavares and Matthews skating together

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