Rick Nash is playing vintage Rick Nash regular-season hockey.
After he arrived via trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 23, 2012, Nash was supposed to push the New York Rangers to postseason glory and bring the Stanley Cup back to Madison Square Garden. Since then, the Rangers have been on the brink. They lost in the finals to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, and then in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But Nash didn't exactly deliver on expectations.
Now, however, he's playing with urgency and determination.
"Far better," said one Western Conference scout. "He's moving his feet more and controlling the puck. The biggest difference is he looks determined to make things happen."
"He's dynamic," said an Eastern Conference scout. "He's hard to handle offensively."
He's focused. His production is up slightly after a disappointing 2015-16 season, when he finished with 36 points in 60 games. This season, he has 13 goals and seven assists for 20 points in 30 games -- just two shy of his goal total for all of last season. He leads the team with 88 shots. After missing four games with a groin injury, in his first three games back, he has two goals on 10 shots, and is plus-3. He suffered another groin injury during Sunday night's win over the Devils, which will reportedly keep him out for at least the remainder of this week.
Nash, 32, will become an unrestricted free agent after next season. His cap hit is $7.8 million, but despite the team's salary constraints, it would be a mistake for the Rangers to move him to clear space. After being in the league for 13 seasons -- eight of which he never sniffed the playoffs -- Nash fully understands how difficult it is to win a Stanley Cup and knows his best chance of achieving that goal is with the Rangers.
For that reason, this could be the season he steps up in the playoffs. His window of opportunity is closing, and he knows it.
"[When] he's on top of his game, he's one of the best players," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. "The way he can skate, he's strong, he takes pucks to the net and that's how he scores most of his goals. ... When he decides to go there and pay the price like he's doing, he's going to get a good result.
"I just like his game overall. He just works really hard at both ends of the ice. He's not all about points -- definitely not. He's a really great team player in the locker room and on the ice. It's important for us to have him [playing] this good because it makes a big difference in a lot of tight games."
But we've seen this before.
"He's had great regular seasons," said the Eastern Conference scout.
Implied, of course, is that he hasn't performed in the playoffs. Nash has played in 65 Stanley Cup playoff games, scoring 12 goals and 24 assists for 36 points. He has averaged 0.43 goals per game in the regular season, but that average plummets to 0.18 in the playoffs.
"It's tough to say, but he has been an enigma in the playoffs," said an Eastern Conference scout. "He's not as effective in a tight-checking game."
During the playoffs, teams tighten up defensively and add layers of coverage. Nash is a great one-on-one player. He's big, strong and hard to handle. But he has struggled in playoff-style games, when the checking tightens up.
Nash is at his best when he's controlling the front of the opponents' net with his big body and strength to create havoc. That's where he's scoring the majority of his goals -- in the dirty areas -- which is exactly what the Rangers need from him, especially during the playoffs. He's showing that, when healthy, he's able to keep his 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame moving, and when he does that, he's a tough player to defend one-on-one. He's working the puck out of the corners and along the walls and taking it to the net with authority, which is something he lacked last season.
"There are so many things to like about his game right now," said an Eastern Conference scout.
The Rangers are a good team with one of the best goalies in the world. Nash needs to be the type of player who makes everyone around him better; he needs to find a way to break free from the checking. A Stanley Cup-winning team needs that heartbeat, that extra gear found by its top players.
"Those types of players drive your team," said an NHL executive. "That's what elite players do."
Given his abilities, Nash is capable of reaching that level. If he can establish that in the playoffs, that's where he'll build his legacy because elite players -- Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar -- produce on a consistent basis when the stakes are highest.
Not only is there pressure to perform on the ice, but Nash also needs to be a leader off the ice in order to help the Rangers' young core of talent. Becoming a leader is something he had to get comfortable with early in his career as the top pick in the 2002 draft.
"I felt that pressure pretty early in Columbus with it being a new franchise and [me] being a first overall pick," Nash said. "My second year I was the assistant captain, so I felt that [pressure] really early, but as you get older, it gets more important off the ice. It's important to show these guys how you handle yourself away from the rink, and [how to be] comfortable in their surroundings. That's been the biggest adjustment for me as a leader, to make sure they're doing all right off the ice."
Nash smiles when he compares his first few seasons in the NHL to those players who are making the jump from the collegiate level to the pro ranks. Rookie Jimmy Vesey, 23, has been playing on a line with Nash.
"It's a bit different for me; I came in when I was 18," Nash said. "I got captain when I was 24, so it's a bit different, but the one thing you try to explain to guys coming in the league is that you have to be a good defensive player first. If you're known for scoring goals, goals will come as long as you play well defensively, and playing on his line I try to preach that to him."
It took Nash time to understand that two-way concept, too, especially after coach Ken Hitchcock took over the Blue Jackets and started using him to kill penalties.
"He had me out there in the last minute of games," Nash said, "so that's when it clicked that if you want to be an all-around good player, you have to learn to play defense, and obviously my first couple of seasons my minuses were pretty bad."
Nash's game has progressed and his peers still consider him one of the top regular-season players in the league. The window for him to win the Stanley Cup is getting smaller and he and his teammates must seize the moment.
Rick Nash's time is now.
New York Rangers star Rick Nash extra motivated as Stanley Cup window closes
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