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Rick Nash and the Rangers face critical season

New York Rangers Right Wing Rick Nash (61) [2288] congratulates Goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) [2585] after they beat the Flyers 4-1 following a regular season NHL game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. Photographer: David Hahn/Icon Sportswire
David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

Speaking at the NHL’s media day for the 2018 Winter Classic in New York, veteran forward Rick Nash talked about how big of a season he — and the New York Rangers — will be facing this season.

It’s a big season for the Rangers because they have to find a way to capitalize on the years that starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist still has remaining as a top-tier player. They have a deep group of forwards and made some much-needed changes to their defense.

It’s a big season for Nash on a personal level because, for the first time in his career, he is entering a contract year and is facing the potential of being an unrestricted free agent following the 2017-18 season.

Here is Nash talking about all of that, via the New York Daily News:

“Every year I want to have the best year possible. But this year, it’s an important year for me personally. It’s an important year for the Rangers, too. We still haven’t achieved that goal (winning the Stanley Cup) that we all want to achieve.”

“Your contract’s up and you play for another contract. That’s what I’m facing this year,” he said.

Nash is an interesting case, because we really don’t know what to fully expect from him this season.

He had what was arguably his best season in the league when he scored 42 goals in 79 games during the 2014-15 season. Adding to his value was the fact that he was a dominant, possession driving forward while also being one of the best and most dangerous penalty killers in the league. Every time he was on the ice in a 4-on-5 situation he was a threat to take the puck the other way and set up a shorthanded chance. He was a fantastic all-around player who probably didn’t get enough credit for how valuable he was.

That has pretty much been the story of Nash’s career. In Columbus, his play was overshadowed by the fact that the team around him was never really competitive, and we never got to see him shine on a big stage. In New York, there was always immense pressure to succeed and produce — particularly in the playoffs — and no matter what he did, it never seemed to be enough. To be fair, his production has dropped a bit in the playoffs, but his overall play has always been strong and he always seems to make an impact.

But at this point in his career, Nash is no longer in his prime. He is entering his age 33 season and is at a stage where his production is going to decline. It has already started.

After scoring 42 goals during the 2014-15 season (again, in just 79 games) he has scored just 48 over the past two seasons in 127 games. Still very good production, but probably not what you want to see from a more than $7 million a year player, and for a player who is playing for a new contract after the season.

Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that a lot of his underlying numbers have steadily dropped, along with his overall point production. That regression goes back earlier than just the past two years.

His Corsi numbers went from 54.6 percent in 2013-14, down to 51 percent, then 48 percent in 2015-16 then down to 46.8 percent in 2016-17, the lowest mark of his career dating back to the 2007-08 season, when possession numbers first started to get tracked.

Along with that, his ability to generate shots has also taken a hit. After averaging four shots per game during the 2012-13 season, his average has steadily dropped every season since, dipping below three shots per game (2.91) in 2016-17 for the first time since he was an 18-year-old rookie. A lot of Nash’s value in his career has been in his ability to score goals, and the biggest part of scoring goals is the ability to generate a lot of shots. As that ability declines, so, too, will the goal scoring.

What makes this whole situation so fascinating is that the Rangers really need a big season from Nash, due to the type of player he is and the overall makeup of their roster. They have a solid group of forwards, but they don’t really have a superstar go-to-guy to be a dominant scoring force.

They had four players record at least 50 points and a fifth record 49 in 76 games last season. That is pretty good. But they had nobody score more than 60 points.

Eight players scored at least 15 goals, and Mika Zibanejad scored 14 in only 56 games. That is also really good. But nobody scored more than 28 goals.

Nash is the one player on the roster who at least has the pedigree of being that sort of impact player, and he has been that before. If they are going to compete with teams the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and even the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Eastern Conference crown, they are going to need more of the old Rick Nash.

Nash needs more of that for himself when it comes to his next contract, because this is probably going to be his final chance in the NHL to get another big deal, whether it is with the Rangers or somebody else.

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