In his return after a multi-game layoff due to a shoulder injury, I thought Riley Nash was the Canes best player in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to San Jose. He scored a goal on an individual effort that was equal parts heady and creative hockey, skilled skating and just being opportunistic. More significantly, he seemed to jump start his line which also included Kris Versteeg and Jeff Skinner. Despite not scoring, I think one could make a very strong case that it was Jeff Skinner’s best game of the season. He was buzzing around, finding the puck and just being dangerous like he does when he is playing well and scoring. Nash had a very direct part in that using his skating to free up some pucks on the forecheck, turnovers and whatever else. It was a long time ago, but this is the trio that saw Jeff Skinner notch 2 real goals and another in a 3-on-3 exhibition in the Canes third exhibition game.
One game is obviously not enough to draw a trend line that shows Riley Nash having a break out season, but I think a look much farther back suggests it is possible. Now 26 years old, Nash’s development has been gradual but consistent. He did not play his first AHL game until he was 21 years old after 3 years at Cornell. Nash made decent strides but put up modest scoring totals in 2 seasons in the AHL. He had 32 points in 79 games in 2010-11 and then 20 points in 58 games in 2011-12. His scoring picked up in 2012-13 (37 points in 51 games), and he also saw 32 games at the NHL level.
Entering the 2013-14 season at the age of 24, I had him pegged as a fourth-liner in this HB blog from August 2013. My issue at the time was that he seemed to project as a decent skating defensive center that maybe fit okay on a fourth line, but he lacked any of the niche roles that teams ideally want from a fourth-liner. He was not an enforcer or even a rugged, physical fourth-liner at 6-1 and probably about 180 pounds at the time. He did not kill penalties. He struggled in the face-off circle which made it hard to put him out for defensive zone draws or try him in penalty-killing role. At the time, I think he projected as a marginal fourth-liner who did not bring much extra to the table. And I think that was still pretty accurate coming out of the 2013-14 season. Nash collected a modest 24 points in 73 games, finished with a 45.9 percent face-off win percentage and did not see much ice time on the penalty kill. But I think he did finish the season improved from the full season of NHL experience and maybe set the stage for 2014-15 more so than anyone realized.
The 2014-15 season saw Jordan Staal lost for the first half of the season to a broken leg in a preseason game and Riley Nash pressed into a much higher role. Especially out of the gate, he looked ready. He was 1 of the team’s best forwards and 1 of very few bright spots early in the season. In the first 20 games of the season, Nash scored 4 goals and collected 11 assists. He suffered an injury setback and slowed from there, but gains were definitely made during the 2014-15 season:
- A bigger role. He proved that at least for a stretch he was capable of playing more minutes with bigger responsibilities and scoring more.
- Face-offs. No doubt leveraging the previous season with face-off specialist Manny Malhotra and also tutelage from Rod Brind’Amour, Riley Nash finished at 50.9 percent in the face-off circle.
- Penalty kill. He took on a significant role in a Hurricanes penalty kill that finished fourth overall in the NHL.
- Size and strength. I am not aware of a good source to track it year by year, but Nash also added weight (the good kind) since his entry into the NHL. Wikipedia still shows him at 6-1 and 173 pounds whereas the Hurricanes web site lists him at 6-1 and 200 pounds right now, so along the way Nash also added 20-25 pounds.
- Offensive adaptation. Even with his substantial development over the past few years, I still do not think Riley Nash projects to ever be a slick playmaking center (guess that is the next 1 he proves me wrong on), but he has made significant strides using the skills he does have to product more offensively. He has bought into the need to go hang out in front of the net when he does not have the puck which gets him some quality chances to finish. And he uses his skating ability well to create turnovers and offensive chances off the forecheck.
It has been gradual and the exciting ‘whiz bang’ type of development path for Riley Nash. And it is by no means certain that he will develop into more than a good role player (with more of the extras like penalty kill and face-off ability), but if he can find chemistry with some scoring-capable forwards (Skinner and Versteeg would fit the bill) and continue his steady improvement in multiple facets of his game, could he be on the cusp of even bigger things.
I think it is at least worth keeping an eye on especially if he can keep playing well on his current Skinner/Nash/Versteeg line.