Earlier today, the excellent Matt Wagner posted a great piece on Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash over at the Cannon. He makes some excellent points about what may be weighing on Nash, but in my opinion there are many problems with Nash's play lately that could be fixed easily. Both @Canadan82 and myself have been critical of Nash, so I thought I would break down Nash's game from last night and try and show the aspects of his play that have been so frustrating. Before I get started let me say that I am still a huge fan of Rick Nash, as he has a package of size and talent that is matched by only a handful of players. I've watched Nash for over a decade now (starting during his time in the OHL with London) and have long thought that he would eventually break out into a true superstar and put up the numbers to go with it. However, his play as of late suggests a regression. This has nothing to do with an erosion of his skill, or his quiet leadership style, or Nash trying to do too much. Armed with the game film and Nash's time on ice, let's look for some examples from last nights game.
Starts off an offensive zone draw, which Carter wins past Nikitin and deep into the neutral zone. Next we see Nash he is standing still on the opposing blue while Umberger and Carter are breaking through the neutral zone with the puck. After losing the puck on the dump, the Jackets then get the puck back in the neutral zone and head in on a 3 on 2 (although the Wild had two backchekcers). Nash throws a bad shot on net from a harmless angle.
This shot has almost no chance of going in. Carter is driving the net and Umberger is open for a pass for a split second. Either a pass to Umberger, or a shot to Carter for a deflection would have been better decisions. Or he could have used his strength and crashed the net with the puck. He even could have moved down low with the puck and either started the cycle or curled around and looked for a defenseman jumping into the play. This play lacked any semblance of creativity, drive or thought whatsoever. A similarly weak shot from that bad angle would have been okay if he put it low enough for a rebound. Instead he fires a shot directly at Backstrom's catching glove.
Shift TwoShift began with the Blue Jackets first powerplay. Pretty non-descript, although it did feature some work by Nash on the half wall. This is another pet peeve of mine, as a player with Nash's size and hands could be deadly down low or at the front of the net, but instead he prefers to stay on the half wall where he is not dangerous to shoot or score on a rebound.
Another powerplay shift sees Nash mostly on the perimeter and half wall again. During this shift Nash made another play that drives me crazy. While forechecking on a powerplay, Nash makes a half-assed effort to knock the puck away and then curls away from the Wild player and goes behind the net. If he played the man, the Jackets would have kept the puck in. If he stayed with the play, he would have picked the puck up. Instead he curls away instead of getting physical or stopping and the Wild send the puck down the ice. Since I can't embed video of this play (or most of the plays I'm going to reference), here are a couple of before and after screenshots.
There is no defending that kind of effort on the powerplay. If Nash plays the man, Carter picks up the puck. If Nash plays the puck, it doesn't get sent down the ice. Instead he just curls right past him.
This shift featured some terrible neutral zone defense from Nash and a clear example of his aversion to backchecking. As the Wild are carrying the puck through the neutral zone, Nash is standing absolutely still, not covering a single Wild player or passing lnae and waving his stick around like he is attempting to break up a pass.
Even though he is the just outside their own end, once the Wild gain the Jackets zone Nash doesn't appear again until they are starting to break out a few seconds later and Nash has barely crept back below the Jackets blueline.
Despite not hustling back, Nash doesn't hustle to get up into the rush either, as Carter outskates him up the ice and Nash hangs way back on the perimeter, not crashing the net or even getting into a passing lane.
An 11 second shift culminating in Nash taking a hooking penalty behind the Minnesota net. A lazy play and an absolutely terrible penalty.
Nikitin throws the puck around the boards to Nash at the hashmarks in his own end, who then fumbles the puck, gets hit, loses the puck and stands there adjusting his helmet for a second. The Jackets regain possession of the puck in their zone and Nash immediately takes off and forces Nikitin to try and make a bank pass past the Wild defender to hit Nash. The pass misses and Umberger beats the Wild down the ice to negate the icing (although Umberger got nailed after picking up the puck). After another trip back to the Jackets end, Umberger dumps the puck into Nash's corner and changes. Despite getting to the puck first, Nash makes a weak play on the puck and Schultz knocks it out of the zone.
Nash beats him to the puck, but shies away from the contact and tries to chip it past. Instead of using his body to rag the puck for a couple second and allow the team to change and help to arrive, he shies away from contact, loses the puck and almost gives up an odd man rush (thwarted by half the Jackets halting their change).
Nash starts the shift following Cullen scoring the Wild's first goal. Nash isn't really involved in the play at all, although he is standing near the front of the net as the Wild's second goal is scored. Nash could have picked up Johnson at one point, but he was right in front of Umberger when he scored.
A lazy play by Nash on the break-out. Nash jumps too high in the zone and instead of coming back to the puck on the wraparound, he stands and waits for it, gets beat, and instead of hustling back tries to stickcheck the Wild player.
This leads to an extended forecheck for the Wild, followed by another lazy play by Nash along the boards in his own end.
Tyutin dumps the puck past Nick Johnson. Nash is very close to the hashmarks and should have no trouble getting to the puck.
Instead, Nash floats higher into the zone and gets beaten to the puck by two Wild players, one of whom was so much higher in the zone than Nash that he was out of the frame a second earlier.
A lazy shift for Nash, literally coasting back twice.
There was also a third Wild rush off that shift, one that sees Nash as the trailer in the offensive zone, Wisniewski turn the puck over, and instead of Nash hustling back and picking up a man, he does a huge loop and is the last Jacket back into the defensive zone.
Just before the turnover by Wiz.
Immediately following the turnover (note Carter circling behind the net).
Just after Heatley's shot is tipped over the glass. Note that Carter beat Nash back into their own end, even though he curled much deeper in the offensive zone before backchecking.
Shift Twenty Nash manages to turn a 2 on 2 into a 1 on 3 (with Umberger trapped low in the zone).
Instead of taking the puck wide and spreading the defense out, Nash skated right into both of them, did a big curl (allowed the backcheckers to get into the play) and then walked along the blueline surrounded by Wild players. Shocking that he lost the puck and turned a potential scoring opportunity into an odd man rush for the Wild
Following consecutive excellent shifts, where Nash was crashing the net and the corners, almost scored three times and generally dominated the play, he had a bad forecheck, followed by a lazy backcheck and a bad change.
Look at the angle here. He is not taking away either passing lane, and he isn't moving so he isn't pressuring the defenseman. Plus he is deep in the zone, so if the puck gets past him the Jackets will have two guys caught up ice.
Shockingly, the puck gets passed right in front of Nash and the Wild's most dangerous line breaks up ice. Carter and Nash were caught deep, so one would assume they would get on their horses and hustle back. Instead we see Nash slowly skating away from the play towards the bench.
Nash loses the puck at the 2:44 mark of the third period. He then does a big loop and coasts all the way back into the Jackets end where he stands still along the hashmarks.
The next stride he takes is at the 2:30 mark of the period. Not the hustle you want from the captain late in a game, down by one.
There wasn't too much he could do in this situation, but you would like to see some movement from him, moving to space and creating an out for the defenseman. Or at the very least move deeper in the defensive zone so he can curl up ice with some speed.
Shift Twenty-FiveThis was Nash's final shift of the game, with the goalie pulled. This shift is what inspired me to write this post. I have never seen a supposed elite player this passive in this kind of situation. Nash is never a threat to score, never in a passing lane and never has the puck. He never goes to the front of the net. Mason still being in the net would have been better here, as at least the empty net goal wouldn't have been scored. Here's a bunch of screen caps of this atrocity.
First picture is showing Nash following a point shot, where he didn't start to creep towards the net until well after the shot was taken.
If you are looking for Nash in this picture, you won't find him. He is somewhere off screen in the other corner.
Barely back in the frame, not available for a pass, not screening the goalie, not helping out the Jackets forwards or affecting the Wild defense.
Not sure if you can tell, but Nash is standing straight up, stick at waist height, well away from the play, not helping Carter or Umberger get the puck or getting to a passing lane.
Puck is sent around the other side and Nash is still standing in the same spot, really looking like he wants to bury that game tying goal.
More of Nash standing still, straight up, stick at his waist, far away from the play.
The last relevant moment of the game. As Wisniewski is about to cough up the puck for the empty net goal, where is Rick Nash? He isn't on the half wall at the strong side (that is Prospal). He isn't providing an outlet for either Tyutin or Wisniewski. He isn't in front of the net (Umberger and Carter). He is somewhere off the screen in the opposite corner.
There he is! Still standing straight up, stick at his waist, not even giving any kind of effort to get back and stop the empty netter.
Not sure what more to add after that last sequence. I was furious when it happened, and rewatching it again and focusing on Nash only furthered my frustration with him. The biggest issue I have watching him is that these are easily fixed problems. A little bit more hustle, a little more drive to the net, a little more desire at the end of the game. He had a two shift stretch right after the go ahead goal where he crashed the net with impunity. He hit a post, almost scored two more times and Umberger had a couple glorious chances. There is nothing stopping Rick Nash from playing like that every shift. Instead we get this kind of effort game after game. It's disappointing. Over the last few years (and especially this season) mainstream media outlets have expressed the opinion that Nash deserves better than Columbus. I disagree. Columbus deserves a better effort from Nash.