The Hurricanes void at third line center was something that wasn't addressed in free agency last off-season, but it also wasn't a huge concern for some fans. Replacing Brandon Sutter sounds tough, but with Jordan Staal taking over his role as the team's shutdown center, it gave the Hurricanes and Kirk Muller more options as to what they could do with their third line. Since they were no longer constrained to a defensive role, all the Canes needed the third line to do was play 11-14 minutes a night, provide secondary scoring and control puck-possession against weaker matchups. Finding a center to anchor this line sounded easy on paper, but it ended up being a much bigger challenge.
One of the reasons why no one was brought in during the off-season was because the Hurricanes had a lot of centers on the team and within the organization who could fill this void. They started the year with Jussi Jokinen centering the third line and after that didn't work out, rookie Riley Nash stepped into this role and managed to hold onto it for most of the season. Nash is a player who I thought had an outside chance of making the Hurricanes out of training camp because of his strong two-way game and while he didn't start the year on the team, he got his shot in early February and eventually settled in as the team's third line center.
A reason why I thought Nash would be a "dark horse" for the third line center spot in training camp is because he had been a very strong two-way forward for the Charlotte Checkers over the last couple of years. He was never able to light up the scoresheet, but he skates well, is capable of playing in defensive situations and plays a solid fundamental game, which made him a good candidate for a bottom-six role. Nash doesn't bring a lot of extraordinary assets to the table, but he doesn't make many mistakes either, so a lot of fans were generally pleased with his performance as the team's third line center.
Being a restricted free agent, Nash should get a qualifying offer this summer, but I am a little curious to see how much he fits into the team's long-term plans. Nash is the type of player who coaches and fans love because he does all of the little things well, but he may need to up his game a little since the Hurricanes bottom-six needs to be seriously upgraded. This means he'll have to produce more offensively, play in more high-leverage situations and be more of a difference maker than he was this season. Nash has the tools and the foundation of being a very good NHL player, and it will be exciting to see what he can do with a full training camp plus an 82-game season next year. It will also be interesting to see if he can hold onto the third line center role because I'm sure there is going to be plenty of competition for it.
After the jump, we'll go over what Nash did well this season and what he can improve on.
Like many of the team's younger players, Nash didn't get to play a lot when he was initially called up, but he settled inand regularly played at least 10 minutes a night. Although, there were a few games where his usage at even strength was pretty minimal. I suspect that these were in games where Muller went top-heavy while the Hurricanes were playing down a goal. These are typically the games where the Staals get double-shifted in the third period while the bottom-sixers get stapled to the bench. Nash ended up being a casualty in a couple of those games, unfortunately.
Nash was mainly used against other team's third and fourth lines and wasn't given terribly difficult assignments. There wasn't much need to use the third line in high leverage situations with the Staal lines taking on the bulk of those minutes, so this sort of helped them ease Nash into NHL action. He wasn't being asked to do a whole lot except to work hard for the 11-14 minutes he played and hopefully chip in offenisvely. Nash's work ethic will never be questioned, but his on-ice contributions didn't exactly blow anyone away.
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In a word, Nash's performance with the Hurricanes can be summed up as "average" since he didn't really stand out at all but he wasn't exactly awful either. I mentioned earlier that Nash was a player who did a lot of the little things well but there weren't a lot of games where I thought he was a real difference maker. Five of his nine points came in two games, he wasn't particularly effective at driving the play forward at even strength and he ranked in the middle of the pack in just about every statistical category. This is why I think Nash needs to do more next season even though I like what he brings to the table.
With that being said, defensive play was an area that Nash performed very well in as he was one of the team's better forwards at preventing shot and scoring chances. Nash is a player that rarely gets caught out of position and he plays a safe game, so there usually aren't many defensive breakdowns when he is on the ice. However, his game may have been a little too safe because the Hurricanes also produced little to no offense when he was on the ice.
I think Nash has to the tools to be more effective offensively than he was this year because he is a very good skater and was lauded for his skill when he was drafted, but we didn't get to see much of that this year. Not that your third-line center needs to be an offensive dynamo, but the Canes need more depth scoring and Nash has to be one of the guys providing it if he wants to hold onto the third line center spot. Most young players struggle with the defensive side of their game, but it appears to be the opposite for Nash. A full training camp session with the current coaching staff could help him, I suppose.
When I say that Nash's game was "too safe," most of it is in regards to his neutral zone performance because he was more prone to dump the puck in than almost any other forward. Despite having the speed and the skill to take advantage of gaps in the defense, Nash was content to simply get the puck deep six out of every ten times he entered the offensive zone at even strength. This could be why his offensive numbers were so poor this year because dump and chase play typically doesn't translate to many shots on goal or sustained zone time. Most bottom-six players are prone to dump the puck in at even strength, but Nash has a good offensive skillset and I think he has the potential to do more. There were a lot of times where he seemed to dump the puck in out of instinct even when there was an opportunity for him to make a more aggressive play in the neutral zone. It's one of the many things that he can improve on this off-season.
Season Grade: C+
Nash's performance in the NHL was average in basically every category, so I think a high-C is a fair grade. I was close to giving him a low-B since he wasn't expected to be in the NHL this year, but his performance wasn't really exceptional and there were only two or three games where he stood out. On the other hand, I can't think of any games where he was noticeably bad and he gave the team 100% on every shift. So in the end, the only real critical thing I have to say about Nash is that he could have done more.
The Final Word
There were times when I was really impressed with Nash this year but overall, I felt that he was being restricted a little bit and it kept him from showing his full potential. His solid fundamenal game and defensive play will likely keep him in the NHL, but the Hurricanes are going to need him to be better offensively if he wants to stay as the team's third line center. His contributions this year would make him a great fourth liner and I think he can be a lot more than that. Nash has the skillset to be a very effective two-way player in the NHL but his tendency to settle for conservative plays in the neutral zone may have held him back offensively. Overall, I'm excited to see what he can do next season because he is still young and has a lot of potential that has yet to be unleashed. Whether or not a full training camp will help him reach that level remains to be seen, but I'm going to be expecting more out of Nash next season regardless since there will likely be a few guys competing for his spot in training camp. As the incumbent, he has the inside edge for a roster spot and it's up to him to retain it.