Riley Nash realized early in his career what he needed to do if he wished to stick at the big-league level. And it certainly wasn’t going to get him on many highlight reels.
"Well, I knew I wasn’t going to make the NHL if I was trying to be an offensive player," the veteran forward said Sunday with a laugh. Rather than focus on filling the net, the pride of Consort, Alta. put a priority on keeping pucks out of the cage.
So far, so good, as Nash enters his 11th season with the reputation of a reliable, defensive specialist. It’s why the Winnipeg Jets went and targeted the 32-year-old in free agency this summer, wanting to bring in a bottom-six forward for a very defined role. With plenty of skill up front capable of lighting the lamp, Nash is being counted on to make life a little easier in his own end.
"It’s one of those things where you’ve got to try and find what you’re good at and what can be your fundamentals and what can be your bread and butter," Nash, who signed a one-year deal for the league minimum of US$750,000 said prior to skating in the club’s first preseason game on Sunday night at Canada Life Centre.
"Something that a coach can lean on you night in and night out as what you bring to the roster, to the team. Being one of those top-six guys, you’ve got to put up points and you’ve got to be offensive, you’ve got to be creating every night. You kind of realize where you stack up in the minors and when you get called up and in camps, so I tried to round out my game as best as possible and find ways to get the call up and once you do that, you try and find ways to make yourself important to the team and find ice time, find where the coach will put you out there in different positions. Just try and find value in what I can bring."
Jets coach Paul Maurice has a few options with Nash. He could potentially slot him in as the club’s fourth centre behind Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Adam Lowry, filling a role similar to what Nate Thompson did last year. But if 21-year-old David Gustafsson is deemed ready for that spot, Nash could slide to right wing. There’s an open competition for a third-line spot beside Lowry and either Andrew Copp or Paul Stastny (one of those two will skate in the top-six).
Otherwise, he’s in the mix to play with the likes of Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen, Jansen Harkins, Dominic Toninato and Evgeny Svechnikov on the fourth line. For what it’s worth — not much at this early stage — Nash played Sunday’s game with Vesalainen and Harkins.
Nash was selected by Edmonton in the first round, 21st overall, in the 2007 draft following a monster Junior A season in British Columbia where he put up 84 points in 55 games. He went on to play three seasons with Cornell, with 102 points in 102 NCAA games. Nash never played a game with the Oilers, starting his pro career in Carolina in 2011. The coach of the Hurricanes at the time? None other than Maurice.
"That’s going way back," said Nash, who only dressed for five NHL games as a rookie while spending most of the year learning the ropes in the AHL.
"It’s nice. I’ve just watched him over the years and as a Canadian team, they usually get a lot of press. So, just seeing the way he handles the guys, the team, the media, he’s one of those guys that I’ve really come to enjoy listening to him speak about hockey and about anything. A lot of admiration and a lot of respect for him for what he’s done with this club over the years. They’ve been really consistent. Hopefully I can get in his good books and get some playing time."
Maurice described Nash as a cerebral player, even at a young age, who always seemed to be in the perfect position.
"So he’s not going to be going up and down the ice, but his reliability, and now he’s more experienced, face-off kind of guy, seen a lot more," said Maurice. "So it’s not just all intuitive now. He has the experience to go with it. Just a real good, I’m not going to say necessarily a quiet pro, because that brings to mind a passive player and I don’t think he is that, but he is noticeable to most people who understand the systematic parts of the game."
Nash spent five years in Raleigh, moved on to Boston for two seasons, then went to Columbus for the next three. His time there ended this spring when the Blue Jackets traded him to Toronto. Nash, who was battling an injury at the time, ultimately skated in just two playoff games for the Maple Leafs before they were ousted by Montreal in a first-round upset.
"Just kind of flipping that page and having a fresh start coming into this year," Nash said of his current mindset. "Excited coming into a Canadian city playing with fans, playing for a team that has high expectations. As you get a little bit older that’s something you really look for. Definitely excited in that regard. It should hopefully be a fun year and we can live up to those expectations."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.