For four weeks, the silence surrounding Rick Nash was deafening. When it comes to concussions, no news is bad news.
With the Rangers keeping mum, fans inevitably began fearing the worst. Was this a Sidney Crosby situation? Would Nash be forced to sit out an entire year? This wasn’t – knock on wood – a Chris Pronger tale, was it? It couldn’t be…right?
After news finally came this weekend, it appears it is neither. Nash skated for the first time since being sidelined October 8th after reporting three to four symptom-free days. He is still closer to week-to-week than day-to-day, as a number of hurdles stand between him and an NHL game, but the fact that he has emerged from the fog is an encouraging sign for the Rangers.
And, of course, it’s an invitation to piece Nash back into this puzzle. Aside from Henrik Lundqvist, Nash is the closest thing to indispensable the Rangers have, which makes their surge back to .500 all the more impressive. But don’t buy into “addition by subtraction” – the Rangers, no matter how they’ve played of late, aren’t a better team without Nash.
So when he comes back, whether it’s this week or next month, whether the Rangers have ripped off ten in a row or dropped five straight, expect Nash to slide right back into a first line type of role. Expect him to play big minutes at even strength and on the power play, and when the team needs a goal, expect him to be on the ice.
That much is obvious. But what does Nash’s return mean for everyone else? Who gets dropped down the depth chart? Who gets squeezed out entirely? Given the way the team has played recently, someone is bound to be dealt an unfair fate. But that’s a luxury for a team that has often struggled to find enough talent in their top six.
Before Nash was sidelined, he was playing on the first line with Derek Stepan and Brad Richards. Those three found some success together, but it’s hard to say they’ll be reunited right away. Stepan is now centering Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello on the top unit, and if that trio continues to emerge, Alain Vigneault will be hard pressed to separate them.
Does that place Nash on the second line, then? How about this: with the resurgent Brad Richards playing between Nash and Callahan, there is no second line. And this is to say little of Carl Hagelin, who has 4 goals and 7 points through six games, and nifty-mitted forwards Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Remember what we were saying about luxury?
In all likelihood, the Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello line will run into a wall at some point, clearing space for Nash on the top unit. Stepan, the best center on this team, will stay up there with him, but it’s anybody’s guess as to who will slide into that second wing spot. My money’s on Hagelin, who can play with Nash’s pace through the middle of the ice and track down pucks in the offensive zone.
When the dust settles on Nash’s return, the odd man out may be Zuccarello. Kreider has established himself as a top-six forward under Vigneault, and it’s hard to make a case against any one of Nash, Stepan, Hagelin, Richards and Callahan. And Zuccarello, though an effective offensive player, has little value on the third or fourth line. If he wants to stick around the Rangers, he’ll have to stick around the top six.
All of this is admittedly premature. Nash needs to work himself back into shape, start skating with his teammates, and eventually begin taking contact in practice. And through all of that, the headaches must stay away. That last condition is a volatile one.
Still, with the news that Nash is on the road to recovery, it’s hard not to be excited for this Rangers team. They have won six of eight, have surrendered two goals or less in nine straight, and are beginning to find the back of the net with more regularity. And they’re doing it all without Rick Nash, a first-rate, pure-bread goal scorer whose mere presence on the ice makes this team better.
The Rangers have found their game. When Nash comes back and finds his, it’s “heads up!” for the rest of the NHL.