One of the recurring themes of these playoff Dose columns is to defend good-to-great players who are mired in bad-to-awful slumps that are magnified by the small sample sizes that are a way of life in the postseason.
There are limits to compassion, however, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss Rick Nash’s struggles as mere bad luck. (Even if I think that remains a strong factor.)
In an earlier Dose, I came to realize that both Nash and Sidney Crosby were actually struggling quite a bit to score goals late in the 2013-14 regular season, too. What that indicated to me was that they weren’t “chokers” but merely guys who were struggling; people forget how difficult it is to score in an era that still isn’t very friendly to scoring.
When it comes to snipers like Nash, those droughts can be even more severe. For whatever reason, big power forwards can be awfully streaky (at least once you get beyond the guys who are absolutely elite … I think we can agree that Nash is a stride or two behind the very best even when things are going normally*).
At some point, context gives way to exasperation with situations like these … and if we’re being exceedingly honest here, I can’t think of a situation as stark as this one. Nash currently leads the NHL postseason with 51 shots on goal, yet he doesn’t have a single goal in the 2014 postseason.
It’s not an isolated incident, either; Nash has only managed to score two career playoff goals in 28 games despite firing 104 shots on goal. Compare that to his career regular season marks: 336 goals in 783 games (.43 goals per game) and a 10.1 shooting percentage vs. his current playoff shooting percentage of a mediocre-for-plodding-defensemen 1.9 mark. It’s honestly staggering stuff that makes you wonder if the usual “choker” myth can be busted.
Still, those shots. I know there are plenty of low-quality shots out there and I’ve heard more than a few people claim that Nash is just sending volleys from the perimeter … but I have a hard time believing that every one of those attempts have been from way downtown.
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In grand Dose tradition, I feel that the best thing to do is to merely lay out all the numbers and see if we can make any judgments/observations about what might plague Nash. If nothing else, we can lay the damage out in ways that can allow his nitpickers to mock him mostly effectively.
Let’s go in chronological order, shall we?
Rick Nash in 2008-09:
Game 1: zero points, -1, four SOG
Game 2: zero, -1, three SOG
Game 3: one assist, -2, three SOG
Game 4: One goal, one assist, even, three SOG
Swept by Detroit
2008-09 season: 40 goals, 39 A, 79 P in 78 games
Playoff-year-specific thoughts: You can’t really give Nash too much grief for his work in this series, even if he went down from that point-per-game pace from a strong regular season and the Blue Jackets might have already felt out of this one by the time he got started. Don’t forget that this was a really fantastic Red Wings teams back in the days when the playoffs were never a doubt for them versus a Blue Jackets team bad enough that Ken Hitchcock believed that getting them to the playoffs was the best coaching job of his fantastic career.
2012-13: 21 goals, 21 assists for 42 points in 44 games
vs. Washington in round 1
Game 1: zero, 8 SOG, even
Game 2: zero, 3 SOG, even
Game 3: one assist, +1, four SOG
Game 4: zero, -2, 2 SOG
Game 5: zero, even, 2 SOG
Game 6: zero, +1, 1 SOG
Game 7: one assist, +2, 2 SOG
vs. Boston, round 2
Game 1: one assist, -1, six SOG
Game 2: one goal, even, four SOG
Game 3: zero, +1, three SOG
Game 4: one assist, +2, five SOG
Game 5: zero, -1, two SOG
Playoff-year-specific thoughts: It’s pretty hard to believe that Nash had more success against the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston (at least individually, as the Rangers obviously didn’t last very long) than the typically struggling Capitals. He had more points in five games than he did in seven. Maybe it was a matchup thing or perhaps it was merely a coincidence … this might be a good example of why it’s dangerous to put too much weight in results over four-to-seven games.
Regular season: 26 goals, 13 assists for 39 points in 65 games
Round 1 vs. Flyers
Game 1: one assist, even, seven SOG
Game 2: one assist, even, six SOG
Game 3: two assists, +2, five SOG
Game 4: zero, -1, five SOG
Game 5: zero, +1 zero SOG
Game 6: zero, even, two SOG
Game 7: zero, even, five SOG
Round 2 vs. Penguins
Game 1: zero, even, four SOG
Game 2: zero, -1, three SOG
Game 3: zero, even, four SOG
Game 4: zero, -1, four SOG
Game 5: one assist, +1, four SOG
Game 6: zero, even, two SOG
Playoff-year-specific thoughts: Full disclosure: I actually began pondering this column idea while also putting together research for my lengthy discourse about Peter Laviolette’s potential impact on the Nashville Predators. At that point, Nash faced the added potential shame of failing to score a point in a series for the first time in his already shaky postseason career.
He managed an assist in Game 5, albeit a secondary helper on an empty-netter (basically the lowest form of scoring offense in the NHL …), but a point’s a point.
Even so, this run of 10 games might be the worst of a rut among ruts. Just one assist in that span, respectable SOG or not. His -1 in that span isn’t so bad, yet the bigger picture is bad enough that you can’t help but wonder if he’s injured or … something. Especially since he began the playoffs with four assists in his first three games against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Here’s the added problem: Nash isn’t facing elite defensive teams here. Neither blueline group is particularly imposing among these Pennsylvania squads and few shooters would think twice about firing a shot on Marc-Andre Fleury or Steve Mason (at least compared to Nash’s only goalie Henrik Lundqvist).
So, what does it all say? Well, he’s been surprisingly mediocre against opponents you’d hope he’d melt in Washington, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
While many condemn Nash as a choker, I wonder if he’s either a) injured, b) approaching the decline of his career at age 29 or c) a combination of the two. Collecting 39 points - even with 26 goals - is pretty disappointing and the excuse (being limited to 65 contests) is also a concern (he was limited to 65 contests after only playing fewer than 74 once in his career).
Of course, there’s a fun possibility to consider. It’s nowhere near the “Hollywood-level” story of Martin St. Louis scoring a goal on Mother’s Day just days after his mother passed, yet Nash could face the opportunity of scoring a big goal - or big goals -in a Game 7 to help the Rangers come back from a foreboding 3-1 deficit against the Penguins.
That would be quite the stunning scenario, yet Nash’s struggles - not just in the playoffs, but in the regular season - make me wonder where he should be drafted next season. If nothing else, I’d personally be likely to give the tie breaker to the sniper/winger/player you’d consider instead of Nash.
Does that mean I’m dismissing his value altogether? By no means; in fact, this rough run could make him a better value. Even so, this tough set of 13 games might just be a red flag that a once-great power forward might slip down to merely quite good levels.
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* - When he’s on a hot streak he’s basically an unstoppable locomotive of scoring, though.