I’ve always struggled to watch as a professional athlete who at one time was considered one of his sport’s top talents fade into obscurity. What’s worse is watching that same caliber of player nosedive like a plane that has lost its wings. Enter Rick Nash.
Nash has arguably disappointed in some regard during his entire tenure as a Ranger. Despite scoring 21 goals in 44 games during his first (lockout-shortened) season he all but vanished leading up to, and during the playoffs. Shooting just 2.4% in 12 games did him no favors, nor did shooting 3.6% in 25 the next postseason. Marginal offensive production and weak play in the attacking zone during the 2014-15 playoffs completely derailed his 42-goal comeback season, one in which he was as dominant and dangerous as any skater in the league through the first three months of the year. And of course, there was last years’ 15-goal campaign. He was bad. Really, really, bad. Despite being adept in his own end, by all player accounts a good teammate, and a competent penalty killer, there was no justification for his lack of production once you factored in his price tag ($7.8 million, for anyone unsure). This summer had to have been a low point for him, a man who four years ago demanded a trade to a team that would give him an opportunity to win the cup and further progress his career.
So, what usually happens when you have an asset that seems to be rapidly losing value, and carries a big price tag? You dump him and hope to get as much value in return as possible. Eric Staal is a great exam— no, no, I’m sorry. No one needed that. But Rick Nash should’ve been moved in the same fashion. Not doing so was originally looked upon by many (myself included) as a giant foible on the part of Jeff Gorton. However, here we are, and here Rick Nash is, a wingless plane no more, He’s a player who is now playing a different role than he was in past years, one that no longer asks him to be “the man.” It’s difficult to define lines based on the way this team rolls four, but I would argue that Nash has been relegated to what is essentially a secondary role, and he is benefiting tremendously from it.
While he has by no means dropped considerably in average time on ice under Alain Vigneault (he’s averaging 16:17 TOI/G so far this season, vs. 16:56, 17:27 and 17:01 during the previous three seasons) he has been used more so as a secondary threat, and not a primary one. His progression is not unlike another former premier talent relegated to a secondary role, Marian Hossa. If you remember, Hossa had just come off back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances when he signed with Chicago. He helped the 09-10 team beat the Flyers and win the team’s first cup in 49 years, and then transitioned into the best secondary three-zone threat in the league. That is, until this year’s Rick Nash had something to say about it.
Nash may only have one more point than Hossa, but he has two more goals and is on a line that is poised to pace Hossa’s in scoring. Jimmy Vesey, Derek Stepan and Nash are most certainly the Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Hossa of the east, and the comparison goes beyond just numbers. Stepan and Anisimov, once teammates, are seasoned centers who have just two years separating them. Both have enjoyed success and failure in the NHL, and have found roles with successful teams. Likewise, Vesey and Panarin are both young, talented forwards who will benefit tremendously from the veteran presence of a guy like Nash or Hossa, as well as the middle ground player who they can relate to in Stepan and Anisimov. The X-factor for Tricky Rick is his age. Hossa will be 38 by the time the All-Star break comes ’round, and it’s starting to show. He’s not the same player in the latter stages of the season, and last year he looked gassed just as the playoffs were getting started. Nash has more time on his side and can revel in his newfound role for years to come.
While Nash has yet to prove he can be a postseason threat for the Rangers, with an augmented role and retooled team around him, he has proven he can provide this Rangers team with the kind of depth few other teams in the league possess. He can be a threat in every facet of the game and maybe when the time comes, his playoff scoring won’t quite matter as much.