by Paul West
Several years after he was selected first overall in 2002, Rick Nash‘s career began to take a dubious turn. He was nagged by recurring injuries, and his playoff production was deficient. Eventually the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had drafted him and made him the team’s captain, traded him to the New York Rangers, where he attempted to start fresh. In the 2013-14 season, the Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup finals; Nash contributed, but was outshined in the postseason by teammates like Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. A reputation for playoff unreliability continued to dog him–and even worse, he began to bear that dreaded label: soft.
This year, Nash has been different. The Rangers started slowly, just like last season, but they’ve heated up and are currently amidst a seven-game winning streak. Their current rise has been largely fueled by the lights-out play of Nash, their leading scorer who’s among the league leaders in goals.
Rick Nash was once known as a skilled player who failed to consistently deliver in the clutch. Rick Nash was once known as a guy who could be pushed around and thrown off his game. Rick Nash was once known as a guy who wasn’t worth all the money he was making–another overpaid superstar who couldn’t sustain his brilliance over the long haul. No more.
Welcome to the resurgence of Rick Nash.
In 32 games played, Nash has scored a whopping 22 goals, second in the NHL. He’s playing with speed and precision, he’s weaving through traffic effortlessly, and it often seems as if he’s got the puck on a string. He’s showing uncanny vision and timing; he always seems to know when to double back, spinorama or snap a quick backhand on goal off a loose rebound. He rarely seems to guess wrong, and his 14 assists are evidence that he’s not just scoring but also facilitating. He’s using his size to his advantage, possessing the puck in the corners and between the faceoff circles as defenders try to muscle him off course. Rick Nash seems fully healthy, and is playing with an air of confidence he hasn’t shown in years.
Perhaps most impressively, Nash also leads the Rangers with a plus-minus of 16 (Nash is an aggregate -29 in his professional career). He’s playing two-way hockey, helping bolster the Rangers’ increasingly stout team defense. And with his renewed confidence and explosiveness, Nash is adding to what has been a Rangers strength since last season: the transition game. Rick Nash is playing like an elite scorer who’s also a playmaker, and the Rangers’ give-and-go attacks have lately been things of beauty. With Nash racing up the ice, other playmakers like Stepan can roam more freely while speed merchants like Chris Kreider and Karl Hagelin wreak havoc. Nash is helping protect the defensive zone and acting as a force-multiplier for the offense.
The way the Rangers are playing, they look like a more complete version of the team that came within a few games of winning last year’s Stanley Cup. If Rick Nash continues to play a complete game at an elite level, the Rangers might finally go all the way.