Former All-Star, 79-point scorer (once), power forward.
Current underperformer, overpaid, aging forward.
At 34-years old, Rick Nash is in a position that several other borderline superstars have been in over the past few years. He is now a player who was once an offensive threat who entered his thirties and began to fizzle out. See: Simon Gagne, Brad Richards, Scott Gomez, et al. The latter two saw their time with the New York Rangers begin and end in similar fashion to Nash. They were defined by the expectations placed upon them which they all failed to reach. While Richards and Gomez were acquired via free agency, with Nash, the Rangers inherited the remaining six years of an eight-year $62.4 million dollar contract from the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of a multi-player trade.
It became clear fairly quickly that this was a markedly bad contract. Nash’s trajectory on offense has been in steady decline. The likelihood of a scoring resurgence is highly unlikely given his age and the career tracks of the aforementioned players. So why in the world would anyone want to re-sign a player who yet again was defined by and was ultimately defeated by his expectations?
In an offseason that has been shaped by the retooling of the Rangers’ defense, it would appear that the next offseason will be defined by how the team looks up front. The Barstool crew—J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Jimmy Vesey—will all be RFAs at season’s end will undoubtedly be playing for more than a ‘bridge’ deal. UFA’s Michael Grabner and David Desharnais will likely be gone pending a repeat for either of what Grabner was able to accomplish last season. Which leaves Rick Nash.
Let me preface this with the following statement—I don’t particularly love Rick Nash. But I’ve never despised him. I hate his contract, and I hate that yet again a team was built around a player who did not live up to his offensive expectations. But I can’t hold that against him. You can’t throw money at something and just expect it to work. The added sting to the Rick Nash deal is that the Rangers acquired his contract in full. No retention — as Nash was acquired just months prior to the new CBA.
With 39 points in 67 games last year, it’s easy to see where his career is headed. He’s no longer on the bubble of being elite, or a superstar. He isn’t a consistently flashy player. But he isn’t inconsistent either. The nights where he is impactful, you certainly notice but he isn’t the type of player who is going to cost you a game if he isn’t at his best. Over the past two seasons, he has acknowledged when his play has been subpar and what he needs to do to improve. Last season, he claimed to come to camp in better shape and appeared quicker than he had ever been in Rangers blue. There is also more than one dimension to his game, including being a leader to the younger core, as well as being an integral part of both special teams.
With that said, the case for Rick Nash isn’t just about weighing the pro’s and con’s of Nash as a player, but about looking at his market value and the years to come. After five seasons, we know what Rick Nash gives the team. Offensively speaking, he’ll probably be a 40-point scorer this coming season. He will likely remain the strongest player on the Rangers’ penalty kill, and will be a feature on one of the two power play units. Nash as a player is still certainly an asset to any team that he signs with. But at this stage in his career, he will most likely be looking for the best chance at winning a Cup. In New York, where he has played in three Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final he has been afforded that chance. A chance that is still ever-present with a newly solidified defense and a talented young offensive core. That’s not to say that there isn’t opportunity elsewhere. As The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline alludes to, Nash could set his sights back towards Columbus. However, Nash has been a part of a much more successful Rangers team than he was with in Columbus.
But what would Nash’s extended tenure with the Blueshirts look like? Let’s examine the career of the newly-retired Shane Doan.
At age 33, Doan was still an impactful player, coming off of years of solid production. From 33-35, he averaged 2.0, 2.6, and 1.9 points per 60 minutes played (P/60) respectively. At 32, Nash finished last season with 2.1 P/60. For Doan, it wasn’t until age 38 where his production dipped considerably. Doan was often the top producer on an Arizona team that at times lacked offensive talent though. In 2017, Nash was ranked sixth out of all Rangers forwards in scoring. Compare that to Doan’s 33-year-old 2009-10 season where Doan was relied on as the Coyotes leading scorer. Doan’s contract extension—signed at the age of 30—at a $4.55 Annual Average Value (AAV) was a true value for Arizona. And he was “the guy” during the majority of his career. Other, more talented players, came and went on that team, but Doan remained, every time rejecting the lure of free agency.
Fortunately for Nash, he doesn’t need to be “the guy” in New York. And his next contract doesn’t need to be contingent on this. Nash can still be an impactful player on this team in the ways that he has been, while helping the new core grow. A two-year contract at the end of this season will take Nash to 35 where he will still likely be able to sign his last NHL contract. Perhaps a retirement deal with Columbus, as Portzline suggests will happen eventually. To put a number on it, a two-year deal with a $4.2M AAV for a player with the aforementioned skill set and production is certainly fair. This would be comparable to Doan’s five-year extension with Arizona at $4.55 AAV. And if the cap conditions are there, the Rangers should consider it.
Again, I don’t predict a great resurgence for Rick Nash. That isn’t really his style. I also won’t presume to know what is going on in his head looking at this season and the offseason to follow. But nobody is going to understand where Rick Nash is at more than Rick Nash. He is at the crossroads and he will have to decide the direction of the final chapters of his career. Will he become a journeyman, signing one-year deals with bubble teams? Will he have an offensive resurgence and become an goal scoring asset again? Or will he play out the rest of his career—or the next few seasons at least—with a team he has helped to build?