Goals in bulk: Rick Nash is a big man with small man's skills
This story appeared in the Feb. 9 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Rick Nash often rides the subway from lower Manhattan and the apartment he shares with his wife, Jessica, and their infant son, McLaren, to his job at Madison Square Garden. He rarely draws a glance from his fellow straphangers, which is how he likes it. “You’re in a suit, and there’s millions of people in suits,” says Nash, who is so frequently described as “mild mannered” in the New York tabloids that the term threatens to become his personal Homeric epithet. “Maybe once every few weeks, someone will say something. During the playoffs you might get noticed a bit more.”
Last spring that wasn’t a good thing for the 30-year-old winger. Even as the Rangers skated to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994, Nash—who when he was just 19 shared the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and who has more goals in the last 12 seasons than all but four other players—couldn’t find the back of the net. He went without a goal in three of New York’s four playoff series, scoring just three times in 25 postseason games. During a second-round shutout loss to the Penguins, he was lustily booed by Garden fans.
The low point came midway through double overtime of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, when the Rangers were on the verge of elimination. With the score tied 2–2, a pass from center Derek Stepan found Nash low in the right face-off circle, with goalie Jonathan Quick out of position at the top of the crease. “I was thinking, ‘We’re heading back to New York for Game ” Nash says. “I’m in the slot, backdoor. Goalie’s committed. I got a wide-open one-timer to end the game. Hit it exactly how I wanted to.”
But Nash missed the unmissable, thanks to lunging defenseman Slava Voynov. “The D-man just held out his stick, and it hit the shaft,” Nash says. “It was unbelievable.” Five and a half minutes later Kings defenseman Alec Martinez scored the game-winner, and the Rangers were indeed headed home.
When Nash and the New York coaches reviewed his postseason, they had trouble pinpointing why he had so much difficulty scoring. “I thought in the playoffs he played extremely well,” says Alain Vigneault, the Rangers’ second-year coach. “He did everything that I wanted him to do. But, on top of playing well at both ends of the rink, he’s supposed to put the puck in the net. [He] just didn't do that.”
“I watched the games back, and I was having tons of chances,” Nash says. “[It] just seemed like I couldn’t find that last little effort, that last little gear to get the puck past the goalie.”
What Nash was missing was the indefinable quality that separates a consistently great player from a transcendent one, a difference that is sometimes as narrow as the shaft of a defenseman’s stick. This season—in which he was on pace for the first 50-goal season of his career (he finished with a career high 42) and in which he has emerged as both an MVP candidate and as the catalyst for a Cup-contending team—he seems to have found it.
While most of his teammates and opponents cut sweaty, effortful loops around the ice, Nash projects calm and confidence. As play chaotically swirls around him, he looms until it is his time to strike, which he does with both power and skill. Most other players are pilot fish; Nash is a shark. It is not just because his size (6' 4", 220 pounds) makes him one of the larger men in any arena on a given night. It is also about his bearing. Nash plays with a finesse that big guys are not supposed to possess, and that, Mark Hunter says, is because he did not become a big guy until relatively late in his teenage years. Nash did not surpass six feet until he was in the 10th grade, and the next year, when Hunter, then the co-owner and GM of the London Knights, took the 15-year-old Nash with the fourth pick in the 2000 OHL draft, he still weighed less than 170 pounds. “We had a test in which players had to bench 150 [pounds], and his first year he grabbed the bar and it went down so quick on his chest, we thought he was hurt,” says Hunter, a former NHL winger who’s now the director of player personnel for the Maple “We’re yelling, ‘Get it off him!’”
Nash retained the skills he developed as an undersized forward even as he grew. “He knew how to play in tight spots,” says Hunter. “Now he’s 6' 4" [but] playing a little man’s game, stickhandling in small areas. We watched him develop from a not very big kid into a monster.”
“It’s unbelievably unique in the NHL, that combo,” says Doug MacLean, who as the GM of the Blue Jackets traded up to draft Nash No. 1 in 2002. “He is a power forward, but he’s a different type of power forward—a power forward with great skill. Usually [power forwards] will bull through you. He doesn't.”
Of the 18-year-old Nash, MacLean says, “he was our best player right away.” Nash made five All-Star Games while with Columbus, and another with the Rangers in January.
There are, in retrospect, two reasons for Nash’s struggles last season. One was his health. He suffered a pair of concussions in 2013, one in February and another in October—the second forced him to miss 17 games. “It was a terrible experience,” he says. “I wouldn’t use that as a crutch or an excuse, because I’m not the only guy to go through it. But it takes time to build that confidence, that consistency again. The skills, the timing, all that stuff.”
The second reason—related to the concussions in that they interrupted his normal workout routine—was his fitness. “I was at most of the Rangers’ playoff games last year, and he was not the same player,” says MacLean, who’s now an analyst in Canada for Sportsnet. “He wasn’t getting there. He didn’t have that break to the net, that drive.”
Nash’s off-season conditioning had consisted primarily of sessions on a stationary bike, but last summer he also hit the track, running sprints in an attempt to find a new edge. ”At the end of last year, because of his playoff point production and him turning 30, one of the things that we talked about was that if he wanted to maintain his skill level and his conditioning, you have to work at it a little bit more,” says Vigneault. The results, the coach says, were immediately apparent in training camp. “I’ve only had two [camps] with him, but this one compared to last year? A world apart.”
Hockey players constitute a notoriously superstitious demographic, and Nash can’t help but attribute the fact that he has become all but unstoppable—he scored more goals in his first 47 regular-season games this season (29) than he did last year in 65 (26), and his shooting percentage jumped from 10.1% to 13.8%—in part to puck luck. “I scored a goal in Pittsburgh [on Jan. 18]—I shot it, hit the D-man’s stick, went way up in the air, the goalie couldn’t see it, bounced in,” he says. “I had another one this year where I was in front of the net, [the puck] hit me on the butt, went in. Another one, I was driving to the net, [and it] went in off my shin pad. It’s funny how the game works. When they’re going in, they’re going in. When they’re not, they’re not.”
Nash also knows, however, that there’s more to his success than puck luck. You can be bigger than everyone, and more gifted too, and still need to reach a better level of health and conditioning to overcome the split second that determines whether a game-winning goal will be deflected away or will find the net. Of his Game 5 chance in last year’s finals, Nash says, “The only thing I could have done is get better, get my shot harder. Such a little thing to change. But the way my luck’s going now, I’m sure it would have gone in.
“We always say you gotta be good to be lucky, and you gotta be lucky to be good,” he says.
This season, undeniably, Rick Nash has been both.