Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons
Aside from Zach Parise and maybe Ryan Suter, no player has been talked about more this off-season than Columbus Blue Jackets star winger Rick Nash. With the Blue Jackets running a sinking ship for almost a year now, it’s been no secret that Nash has wanted out of Columbus and GM Scott Howson is looking to deal him. Howson reportedly tried to trade him at the deadline but couldn’t get a deal done because none of the offers were up to his standard.
With the current asking price for Nash being “two roster players and two prospects,” a team is going to have to surrender a lot of assets to acquire Nash’s services and take on a monstrous contract on top of that.
Nash has six years left on his contract and is still due about $47.4 million during that time. His contract gets increasingly expensive every year and it also comes with a cap hit of $7.8 mil. In other words, whoever decides to trade for Nash will need to be really desperate for his services because they have to A) give up a lot to acquire him and B) pay him a lot of money for the next six seasons. There likely won’t be many but Nash is a terrific player so there might be some teams who will be interested.
With his name being in the news and on my Twitter timeline every day, I’ve heard a lot of bold claims about Nash and am sure that you have, as well. Hearing all of this noise in a short period of time can cloud your judgment of a player so after the jump, I will go over some of these claims and respond to them with facts about Nash. This will give us a better idea about him as a player and how much he is really worth.
Claim #1: Rick Nash is an elite forward
Before we dive into this, let’s talk about what makes a player “elite.” By definition, elite means that you are part of a superior, dominant group or in the upper echelon of a certain class. Is Nash one of the top forwards in the NHL or even one of the top wingers? He has scored 30 goals in five consecutive seasons and has hit the 40-goal mark twice in his career. That sounds pretty good, but regular counting stats can be misleading which is why scoring rates are looked at to judge a player’s offensive production instead.
This gives us an idea of how much a player scored relative to his ice time and Nash’s production at even strength has bounced around over the years.
ESG/60 = Even Strength goals per 60 minutes, ESP/60 = Even Strength points per 60 minutes, Fwd Rk = Nash’s ESP/60 rank among NHL forwards, LW/RW Rk = Nash’s ESP/60 rank among NHL wingers
If “elite” means that a player is in the top 10-15 category of his position, then Nash was elite in two of his last five seasons in the NHL in terms of scoring at even strength. The other years he was either above average or in the middle of the pack. What led to the huge even strength scoring outbursts in 2008 and 2010? One might suggest that simple variance is the cause for this but when you take a closer look at how Nash was used by his coaches in those years, it’s easy to see why he produced so much more at even strength.
EVTOI/60 = Even strength time on ice per 60 minutes, Corsi Rel. QoC = Corsi relative to quality of competition, QOC Rk = Quality of Competition ranking in among CBJ forwards, Corsi Rel. = Corsi relative, Corsi Rk = Corsi relative ranking among CBJ forwards, P/60 = even strength points per 60 minutes, OZ Start% = Offensive zone start percentage
Nash was given very soft minutes in 2010-11 and had scored at his highest rate at even strength in five years as a result. Only Sidney Crosby, Daniel Sedin and Ales Hemsky scored at a higher rate than him at even strength that year, so if you are going by that lone season then yes, Nash is elite.
However, you can see that Nash never matched that sort of production in the last five years. The closest he got was in 2008-09, where he managed to drive the play and score at a high level despite playing tougher minutes. It is also worth mentioning that he signed his eight year contract after that season, which may have not looked bad at the time.
Unfortunately, things went south for Nash when he was given tougher assignments. He was still a positive player in terms of corsi for most of those years, so it isn’t all gloom and doom for Nash, but there isn’t enough evidence here to suggest that Nash is truly elite – the best of the best like Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby don’t need the butter soft minutes to put up high-end scoring rates.
Claim #2: Rick Nash has been saddled with bad teammates for most of his career
It is tough to fully judge this claim because there’s limited data available from Nash’s career outside of the last five years, but there is a lot we can discover from this sample. The Blue Jackets have been a pretty bad team during this time if you go by their record, but they haven’t been quite as bad if you look at how much the club has been able to drive the play at even strength.
According to Behind The Net, their Fenwick rate at even strength in close situations has been pretty good in three of the last five years:
FenClose = Team Fenwick percentage at even strength when the score is close
Last year and 2009-10 were the only times when the Blue Jackets were a legitimately awful team. Their ability to generate possession at even strength has actually been fairly solid in other seasons. How much was Nash the key driving force on his line, though? Thanks to Hockey Analysis’ stat site, we can see how Nash did with certain linemates and how those players performed away from him.
These are the even strength corsi rates of Nash and his teammates during the 2007-12 seasons and you can see here that Nash was able to elevate the play of his linemates a little bit. Kristian Huselius, Jakub Voracek and Jeff Carter were the only players who were controlling play at a higher rate without Nash than they were with him.
That being said, not many of Nash’s teammates saw their corsi percentages improve dramatically when they played on his line. The only ones who did were Michael Peca and Manny Malholtra. Nikolai Zherdev also saw his corsi percentage improve by quite a bit, but you can see that he also did just fine on other lines.
You could make the case that Nash was surrounded by some pretty weak talent since Derrick Brassard, Antoine Vermette, Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca aren’t exactly the highest quality linemates but a player being paid over $7M needs to produce at a high level no matter who his linemates are.
Nash was able to do that, but only to a limited extent. He was able to drive the play forward at relatively high rate when he was with good players like Voracek, Huselius and Zherdev but they also did just fine without him. He was also able to elevate the play of Peca and Malholtra by a considerable amounts but he wasn’t as effective with most of the other linemates the Blue Jackets stuck him with.
Nash has proven that he can make due with weaker linemates and has elevated the play of some of the weaker ones he was stuck with but not all the time. He does seem to play better when he is with higher quality teammates no matter what, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
Claim #3: Rick Nash is a player on the decline
At 28 years of age, Nash is in what a lot of people would consider the “prime” of a hockey player’s career. However, not every player has the same prime age so it’s very possible that Nash could have peaked years ago and is currently on the decline. As players get older and stronger, they are trusted with more responsibility and are used in tougher situations such as the penalty kill.
The interesting thing about Nash is that the opposite has happened with him. He is playing tougher minutes at even strength (save for 2010-11), but the Jackets have stopped using Nash on the PK the last couple of seasons. Whether you want to attribute this to the coaching staff not trusting him defensively or wanting to cut down on his minutes is up to you.
When you look at Nash’s corsi relative ratings over the last few years, it’s easy to say that he is declining because he isn’t nearly as dominant territorially as he once was. Even when he was given soft minutes in 2010-11, he ranked sixth among Columbus fowards who had played 40 games, which would be right in the middle of the pack. Nash was able to score often at even strength that year but a guy playing those minutes should be much better possession-wise. Perhaps that could explain the drop-off he had this year since he was reverted back to being used in tougher situations.
Also, if you were to look at how Nash’s scoring rates compare to his teammates, you will also notice a slight decline from where he used to be.
ESG /60 = Even strength goals per 60 minutes, ESP/60 = Even strength points per 60 minutes, Rank = ESP/60 rank among CBJ forwards, PPG/60 = Powerplay goals per 60 minutes, PPP/60 = Powerplay points per 60 minutes, Rank = PPP/60 rank among CBJ forwards, ESP% = Percentage of Columbus’ even strength points scored by Nash, PPP% = Percentage of Columbus’ powerplay points scored by Nash
This could have been just a down year for Nash but when you take into account that he was playing tougher minutes and that his powerplay production has also taken a dip the last couple of seasons, it’s hard to claim that this is just bad luck. Nash is obviously still scoring at a relatively high level on the powerplay but it looks weak in comparison to where he was two years ago. On a team like the Blue Jackets, Nash should be the leading producer but he was outscored by Vinny Prospal and Derrick Brassard this year at even strength and on the powerplay respectively.
Nash is still a pretty good player and most GMs would probably love to have him on their top-line but given the evidence shown here, it is hard to justify giving up a big package for him. It’s even more difficult to justify spending $47.4M over the next six years paying off his contract because he isn’t worth the cost if he can only produce at an “elite” level when he is playing soft minutes, to say nothing of the player he will be later in the contract.