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NHL Free Agency 2018: Rick Nash is a risky option for the Golden Knights to pursue

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Nash’s age, inconsistency and past playoff performance make him a wildcard this offseason.

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Three

The Golden Knights are much further along than anyone thought they’d be a year ago. The Knights set virtually every record in the books, won the Pacific Division and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in year one. But now, Vegas is just another team entering free agency, looking to shape the roster for next season’s push.

The Knights have more cap space (roughly $31 million) than most teams, which gives Vegas an opportunity to widen its search during free agency. One player the Golden Knights might consider is Rick Nash.

Season in review

  • 28 points (18 goals, 10 assists) in 60 games with the Rangers.
  • Traded from New York to Boston at the trade deadline.
  • Six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 11 regular-season games with the Bruins.
  • Five points (3 goals, 2 assists) in 12 playoff games with the Bruins, who were eliminated in the second round.

Free agency status

Nash, who is coming off an eight-year deal that carried a massive $7.8 million cap hit, is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career.

His top target appears to be Columbus, the team that drafted him first overall in 2002 and where he played the first nine seasons of his career. The Bruins are a candidate as well. However, another possibility is retirement. Nash suffered yet another concussion at the end of the regular season, is 34 and has a son/family to think about. According to Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column, Nash said he is “weighing all options of where I want to pick up the family and move to. My main goal is to the win the Cup.” Vegas has a case there.

Strengths

Nash is an elite goal-scorer. Though he was far more effective earlier in his career, he has 437 goals and 805 points in 1,060 games and is a three-time 40-goal scorer, eight-time 30-goal scorer and 13-time 20-goal scorer. That includes the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in which Nash put up 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games, the third-best point-per-game scoring rate (0.95) of his career.

He also has a rare combination of size, speed and skill. Nash is listed at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds and, despite his age, remains an effective skater. When he puts it all together, he can be dominant.

On top of that, he is very reliable defensively. In fact, Nash has been part of some of Team Canada’s rosters primarily for his checking abilities, which says an awful lot considering his career numbers. That aspect of his game was met with frustration in New York given the fact that his offensive play often paled in comparison to expectations that coincide with a cap hit of just under $8 million, but his two-way play does set him apart from other power forwards in the league.

Weaknesses

Nash’s greatest weakness is his performance in the playoffs. It wasn’t tested in Columbus because he played in just four postseason games there, but it was a major issue in New York and is the biggest question mark surrounding his game now. He is not clutch and does not consistently step up in big games. He has managed just 17 goals in his last 85 playoff games, which comes out to 0.2 goals per game. For someone who has scored 30-plus goals eight times in his career, that’s glaring. Even though he managed five points in 12 postseason games this past season, Nash scored once in seven games in the first round and scored two goals in Game 1 of the second round; that’s it. In the best playoff performance of his career (2015), Nash managed 14 points in 19 postseason games, but seven of them came in two games, meaning the other seven were spread out across 17. That’s not to take away from the seven points in two games, but his consistency is a major issue.

Also, despite his career numbers, Nash’s regular-season production has dropped drastically in recent years and could be indicative of an overall decline in his game due to age. He has earned 36, 38 and 34 points in his last three seasons, respectively, and he has failed to reach the 40-point mark in four out of the last five years. He managed Corsi For percentages of 49.22 in 2017-18, 46.61 in 2016-17 and 47.68 in 2015-16 with the Rangers.

Fit with the Golden Knights

Nash could be a great fit with Alex Tuch on the second or third line next year, especially considering some of the similarities between Tuch’s game and that of Chris Kreider, a frequent linemate of Nash’s in New York. Nash’s defensive ability and two-way game would be welcome on any roster, especially given his speed, and he has the talent to be a true difference-maker on the ice. Whether or not he uses it is another story.

The pressure to be “the guy” that plagued him in New York is likely a non-issue at this stage in Nash’s career. Now that his cap hit will no longer carry the amplified weight and criticism he’s had to bear over the last six years, it’s possible he could be a very effective middle-six forward. However, the uncertainty is not insignificant, and the fact that his biggest flaw is at its gravest when it means the most makes him an unknown commodity.

It’s always possible his game could turn around with a new setting or with the right system in place, especially if he returns to the Western Conference (Columbus was in the Central Division prior to 2013). But that is pure conjecture at this point.

Considering the Golden Knights’ depth was out of its league against Washington in the Final, it’s difficult to believe Nash is the answer. Add to that the fact that he’s 34 and is undoubtedly seeking a multi-year contract and you have an equation that doesn’t add up.

At the end of the day, unless the Golden Knights can sign him to a steal of a deal, Nash is not a sensible fit in Vegas.