Rick Nash’s first season with the New York Rangers would be unfairly classified as a letdown. His 21 goals were the most by a Ranger and his 42 points were second only to center Derek Stepan. But it was Nash’s one goal and five points in 12 playoff games that’s left a bad taste in the mouths of New Yorkers.
Nash simply looked unprepared. During his nine years spent in Columbus, Nash only collected four games of playoff experience, and his inexperience was on full display this past spring.
There was just no edge to Nash’s game whatsoever. Zdeno Chara manhandled the 6’4”, 213-pound winger in the Eastern Conference Semifinal both physically and mentally. As a result, Nash began shying away from the puck and seemed reluctant to carry it into high-traffic areas when it found him.
Nash’s behavior was uncharacteristic of a premier, high-scoring forward with tremendous size. His disappearing act ended up being a major reason the Rangers were bounced by Chara and the Bruins in the second round.
But the optimism a new season brings should motivate a player of Nash’s caliber. He’s a player who’s scored thirty or more goals in seven of 10 seasons in the NHL; a poor playoff showing will not be his undoing.
There’s a lot he and incoming coach Alain Vigneault need to address, though. At 29, Nash should be in his prime, but it’s not too late for him to tweak his game a bit. It could go a long way in extending his career’s longevity.
So here it is: Nash’s blueprint to return to superstar form in the coming season.
Use His Size to His Advantage
Nash is a large human. Not many players in the league—or the world, for that matter—are 6’4”, 213-pounds and still possess world-class skill. It’s time Nash takes full advantage of his size.
Up until now, Nash has only used his size to beat defenders and goalies wide. His wingspan is enormous, and as a result, he can extend his reach so far at times that he can’t be defended (Mario Lemieux, anyone?).
But what we really need to see from Nash is a more physical, nasty brand of hockey. Former NHL superstar Eric Lindros is the perfect example of a player who had world-class talent but used his size to play like a bruiser. Unfortunately Lindros had to end his career early because of complications with concussions, but I’m not saying Nash needs to be as nasty as Lindros was. What I’m saying is he needs to ramp up his physicality a bit more so that he’s even more difficult to play against.
On too many occasions last season we saw Nash either shy away from contact or just get completely rubbed off the puck if he couldn’t avoid it. Neither of those things can happen on a nightly basis to a player with what Nash has to work with.
Nash has had a great career up until this point, but for him to become one of the most dominant players in the league, he’s going to have to add an edge to his game. Bulking up a little more may help too, but it has to be the willingness and desire to make things happen that forces Nash to become a more physical hockey player.
Become More Comfortable Playing Away From the Puck
In New York, Nash has acquired the privilege to play with talented centers. After Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik failed to gel in 2011-12, it was the common belief that Richards and Nash would forge a partnership. Unfortunately, Richards had probably his worst season as a pro and Nash found himself playing alongside a new pivot on a week-to-week basis.
With (hopefully) a re-energized Richards, a blossoming Derek Stepan and a more mature Derick Brassard, Nash will have the opportunity to find his perfect match in 2013-14.
But it’s going to take some effort. Nash is used to being the man. For many years in Columbus, he was the only offensive weapon. So he’s used to creating his own time and space and eventually his own goals.
He doesn’t have to do that anymore, though. Stepan and Richards are excellent playmakers, and Brassard—whom Nash has some experience playing with—has become a more confident player since joining the Rangers. These three can help Nash become a better player. He just has to become more comfortable playing away from the puck.
Sure, a dynamic player like Nash should be able to create on his own, and we know Nash can do that, but the right centerman for a player like Nash could help increase offensive production.
For example, playing away from the puck allows Nash to slip through defenses. When he doesn’t have the puck he isn’t the defense’s primary concern. If Stepan or Brassard have the puck, that means Nash can position himself in scoring positions without two or three guys breathing down his back. And there’s no doubt when he’s in a prime position, players of Stepan, Brassard and Richards’ caliber will get the big man the puck.
It’ll be a mental challenge for a player who’s been “the man” for nine seasons in Columbus, but it’s a change Nash needs to make. The best teams aren’t led by one player, and if the Rangers are to challenge for the Cup, Nash will have to allow his linemates to create additional offense. It’s not only for the good of Nash, but for the team as a whole.
Improve Power Play Performance
When Nash was taking the NHL by storm in the early years of his career he was a power-play dynamo. In 2003-04, Nash scored 19 goals and added 10 helpers on the man advantage. His 29 power play points accounted for more than half of his overall points (57).
He scored more than 10 power play goals an additional three times, too. But in his last three seasons he’s only scored a combined 15.
We know how important special teams are in the modern era, and most of the league’s top offensive players are aces with the man advantage. If Nash is to return to form he’s going to have to improve on the power play.
And again, this isn’t just about Nash. The Rangers were one of the league’s worst power play teams all season long in 2013. His success—or lack thereof—on the power play doesn’t only affect his own personal statistics, but it affects the Rangers as a whole.
For me, Nash’s PP struggles last season stemmed from his poor decision making. He seemed to rarely make the right decision with the puck, shooting into traffic or from a poor angle or opting to make the cute play or pass when he should have shot.
He was also a victim of Rangers Disease, which I just made up right now. It’s an illness that every player who joins the Rangers contracts. Essentially it paralyzes the player when the Rangers are on the power play, forcing them to remain completely still in the opposing team’s zone. It entirely eliminates any kind of movement and flow on the man advantage.
Too often last season we saw Nash standing completely still at the top of the circle, calling for the puck. Of course his teammates would pass to him—he’s Rick Nash—but all Nash would do is fire it into the shins of the opposition, allowing the puck to be fired back into the defensive zone and forcing the Rangers to set up for inevitable failure yet again.
I’d really like to say that Nash’s recent power play struggles are because the Rangers have one of the worst power plays in history (maybe a slight overreaction) but they’re not. Nash was poor on the PP his last two seasons in Columbus and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Nash has to—and this applies to all three bullet-points in this article—simply make himself more difficult to play against. If he does that he becomes an offensive dynamo, which just so happens to be what the Rangers need.