By Sean Hartnett
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What a difference a year makes. Last season, Rangers winger Rick Nash suffered a second concussion in the span of nine months when he was hit in the head by San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart on Oct. 8, 2013. Lingering concussion symptoms played havoc with Nash’s production for the remainder of the campaign.

The 6-foot-4 winger finished the 2013-14 regular season with 39 points in 65 games and only contributed 10 points in 25 playoff games. Nash looked like half a player. He appeared timid and stuck to the perimeter. When Nash was in possession of the puck, his woozy decision-making betrayed him. Rangers fans wondered whether he would ever regain his 40-goal touch and physically dominant traits.

Fast forward to 2015. Rangers fans are seeing a Nash that they haven’t seen before. The 30-year-old winger is dominating all areas of the ice. Nash is a point-per-game player with 43 points through 43 games. He is tied with Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin for a league-best 28 goals, and his five game-winning goals are tied for second overall in the NHL.

Nash is the only player in the NHL to rank in the top 10 in goals, game-winning goals, shorthanded goals, shots, takeaways and plus/minus. He’s been a Penguin killer this season, recording a point in all four meetings between the Rangers and rival Pittsburgh Penguins. His seven points against the Pens is the most of any player on either side in the season series.

He tallied his 27th and 28th goals of the season during Sunday’s 5-2 victory over the Penguins at Consol Energy Center. Only 26 seconds into the contest, Nash scored the game’s opening goal. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang failed to control an offensive zone pass. Nash immediately pounced on the loose puck, turned on the jets and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a laser shot.

It’s the kind of dangerous transition play Nash has been making all season. If there’s a loose puck race, there’s a good chance Nash will come away with the biscuit, blow past his opponent and put a testing shot on goal.

“One of Nash’s best attributes, I feel, is that he competes hard at both ends of the rink,” head coach Alain Vigneault said earlier this season. “A lot of times he’s our first forward back and really helping out our defense. He’s done that since I’ve been here, not just this year. He’s obviously contributing with big goals at the right time.”

Nash will soon travel to his former home, Columbus, for 2015 All-Star weekend between Jan. 23-25. It’s unlikely that this will be the lone honor he receives this season. Nash’s all-around mastery has him gunning for three awards — the Hart Trophy, Rocket Richard Trophy and Selke Trophy.

Barring injury, Nash will compete for Rocket Richard honors as the league’s top goal scorer. So far, Nash has suited up for all 43 games. He is on pace to finish the season with 53 goals, higher than Seguin. The Stars’ center has played two more games and is on pace to score 51 goals. Nash previously shared the award with Ilya Kovalchuk in 2003-04, notching a career-best 41 goals.

Typically, the Selke Trophy — awarded to the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game — has gone to centers. Nash’s two-way superiority will cause many voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to seriously consider his credentials. The last non-center to win the Selke was retired Dallas winger Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03.

Nash has 40 takeaways and his plus-18 is eighth highest among NHL forwards. Of the eight forwards ahead of him in plus/minus, only Tampa Bay Lighting duo Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty log significant shorthanded time. Nash wins countless battles on the penalty kill and is able to spring quickly into attack as a shorthanded weapon. His three shorthanded goals only trail Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli. In any situation or any zone, Nash will use his brute strength, speed and awareness to gain control of the puck.

All of this makes a very convincing case for Nash to be considered a leading Hart Trophy candidate. Seguin, Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin are four other serious contenders for hockey’s MVP award, handed out by the PHWA.

STAAL SIGNS LONG-TERM EXTENSION

Following Sunday’s victory in Pittsburgh, the Rangers formally announced that alternate captain Marc Staal has agreed to a long-term extension. According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Staal has agreed to a six-year extension at an average annual value of $5.7 million.

The extension will kick in next season. Staal will continue protecting all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist through the 2020-21 season, as both are signed for this season and the next six years. Crucially, Staal has a playoff track record of shutting down the game’s elite stars — Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Malkin. It would be hard to imagine the Rangers remaining a contender without him.

It’s a deal that’s a win-win for both sides. Staal was eager to get a deal done since training camp. It was very clear that he did not wish to test free agency. The Rangers have locked down Staal for below what he could have earned on the open market. The 28-year-old could have gotten an extra seventh year and an AAV near $6.5 million had teams fought over him in free agency.

“Marc has been one of the cornerstones of our team since he arrived in New York,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said via a team release. “His commitment and perseverance to the Rangers, and the game of hockey, has been an inspiration for everyone in the organization, and he has become a role model for young players and veterans alike. We are excited that he will continue to provide that leadership in a Rangers uniform.”

The only surprise was that it took this long. Staal joins captain Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein as Rangers defensemen signed through 2017-18 or longer.

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