One of the incredible things during the early portion of the 2015-16 Rangers season is their ability to win without a significant contribution from Rick Nash.
The Rangers finished October with a 7-2-2 record even though Nash only scored one empty-net goal during the month. It’s a stark contrast from last October when Nash steamrolled through the first month of the season with nine goals, yet the Rangers only had a 5-4 record.
[Editor’s Note: Nash recorded his second goal of the season in a 3-0 win over Carolina on Nov. 10]
It was a concern of mine before the season when I looked at aging curves in regards to the Rangers and specifically Nash, but so far the young Rangers core has been able to survive without their best goal-scorer because of unexpected contributions from players like Oscar Lindberg and the routine brilliance of Henrik Lundqvist.
For the Rangers to maintain their lofty standing and Stanley Cup aspirations, they will need a bigger contribution from Nash moving forward. One of the reasons for Nash’s early-season struggles is his lack of deception during shot creation. When a goaltender has half a second of clear sight, it greatly enhances their ability to read the play and assess the possible results before the play is completed.
The more information a shooter provides, the easier it is for the goaltender to stop the puck. The best shooters manage to delay relaying this information to the goaltender and when they add misdirection, they confuse the goaltender and increase their ability to score. This is why slot-line passes, rebounds, slot-line carries and breakaways are so successful and why Nash dominated during his torrid run in October 2014. It’s also why he has lacked success early this season.
With the help of the now-retired Martin St. Louis, Nash was able to deceive goaltenders through high-percentage plays during his hot stretch. He was the recipient of four slot-line passes and generated four slot-line carries that produced four goals. These are high-efficient plays that inflate your shooting percentage and are missing from his repertoire so far in 2015-16. This season, that number was cut in half with three slot-line carries and only one slot-line pass which resulted in zero goals.
It is essential to cross the slot line — the renamed “Royal Road” for those of you who have been following this series — and Nash illustrated this Tuesday night. He broke out of his early-season slump with a brilliant slot-line carry which resulted in his second goal of the season versus Carolina.
When Nash is attacking this imaginary line running through the slot, he resembles the 40-plus goal-scorer of a season ago. Although Nash continually gains the offensive zone with ease, he is also very prone to settling for clear-sight opportunities from the exterior.
If a defense gains the proper gap control, Nash will consistently settle for low-percentage shots. These shots are like playing catch with a goaltender and hold the double-edged sword of not directly producing goals, but also failing to create rebound or tip opportunities because Nash is usually the first to enter the zone and rarely delays or peels back awaiting help.
Even during the occasions when he has produced rebounds, they are resulting in strong side rebounds which goaltenders can keep in front of them while remaining square. Weak-side rebounds are the most valuable because they require the goaltender to pivot and find the puck before they re-adjust to the puck position. These can be caused by shooting to the far side pad instead of the short side which is more likely to stay out of the home-plate area.
Can Nash recover?
It’s likely that he will bounce back and produce his regular 30-goal pace and the slot-line will be essential to that recovery. Of his 42 goals in 2014-15, 17 were from him attacking and opening up goaltenders through slot-line carries or slot-line passes from, St. Louis, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan. He registered over 50 of these shots last season and is only on pace for 32 through October. This number will increase. Net drive was also important to his production with six goals coming from tipped pucks and four more from crashing the net and banging home rebounds.
Nash still exhibits all the elements that make him such a dangerous goal-scorer, but 40 was likely the outlier season at this stage of his career. Like most scorers, Nash relies on hot streaks and if he continues to drive the slot like he did on Tuesday, another one should be around the corner.