Riley Nash proved last season that he deserves an NHL job entering the 2013-14 season.
But how much of a job will he receive? What role will he fill in a volatile cast of Carolina Hurricanes' bottom-six forwards? How much opportunity will he have to move up in the depth chart?
Those serious unanswered questions make 24-year-old Nash, a center, perhaps the most intriguing returning 'Canes player in next month's training camp.
Nash emerged out of a superfluous cast of AHL tryouts to become a significant contributor on Carolina's 2013 roster, effectively translating skills learned through three years at Cornell and three more with Charlotte into the big leagues.
The former 21st overall draft pick tallied four goals and five assists in 32 games, averaging 12:48 in nightly ice time.
He developed decent chemistry with fellow bottom-six linemates Patrick Dwyer and (former AHL teammate) Drayson Bowman and became a fan favorite with his quiet, hard-working attitude.
And, most of all, he gradually improved and increased his role on the team from his debut on Feb. 18 all the way through his finale on Apr. 23.
Nash's 2013 campaign was far from extraordinary. His minus-three rating was unimpressive, his offensive zone start/finish ratio was merely dead even, his zone entry efficiency was mediocre at best and he scored five of his nine points in just two individual games.
Yet, in those two games, Kirk Muller & Co. saw a preview of how No. 20 can translate his two-way reliability and consistency intangibles into full-time NHL success.
Nash's two assists in the first period of Carolina's 6-2 win vs. Florida on Mar. 2 both occurred in almost identical fashion.
The Consort, Alberta native gathered in the puck along the left boards and, despite facing two converging Panthers players in both directions, used his vision to find Jussi Jokinen wide open entering the slot.
Twice, in a three-minute span.
One period later, Nash was rewarded for his earlier playmaking by landing on the receiving end of an accurate Dwyer pass for his first career NHL goal.
The play was created moments earlier, conversely, with a tremendous backcheck by Nash himself:
No. 20 stole the spotlight again just two weeks later with his first career two-goal performance on Mar. 12 vs. Washington.
As seen below, Nash creates a second-period offensive zone possession by forcing a turnover down low from the Capitals' Cameron Schilling:
Nash then establishes a strong, well-positioned netfront presence on Schilling, allowing him the sight line to deflect in an eventual shot from Jay Harrison (at bottom):
Later in the period, Patrick Dwyer (left) beats out Jeff Schultz in an icing race and curls around the net; Drayson Bowman (middle) provides a cross-seam option to keep goaltender Braden Holtby distracted, but Nash (right) uses his hockey sense to find a nifty opening entering the zone:
Although his offensive production simply didn't reflect his level of play for much of the rest of the campaign, Nash proved his worth in the defensive zone by registering one of the best steal ratios in modern NHL history—31 takeaways versus three giveaways.
Nash's plus-3.38 Corsi rating also shone brighter than his negative plus/minus might've suggested, and he racked up a decent 36 hits and 10 blocked shots considering his average 6'1", 200-pound frame.
While his faceoff acumen needs some improvement (he won just 44.3 percent of 289 draws in 2013), Nash's elite vision, two-way awareness and hockey sense fit perfectly into a bottom-six center role.
The experience and coaching familiarity Nash gained from his 32-game 2013 NHL campaign will give him a considerable advantage over "sexier" prospects like Zac Dalpe, Jeremy Welsh and Brock McGinn in September's training camp battles.
No. 20 should call Raleigh home for quite a while.