The Rick Nash watch has commenced again by fans as his struggle to score goals in the playoffs continue.
It’s a popular topic online and the observations span from simplistic viewpoints centered on blame to others looking into more in-depth reasons. Ryan Lambert examined Nash’s production and showed how Nash tends to struggle to produce against elite teams. This is likely true, but probably doesn’t pertain to just Nash.
The problem is playoff teams deploy better players and with that comes greater defensive responsibility. Nash has faced a steady stream of elite players this postseason in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. While Nash has not lit up the scoreboard offensively, he has limited his counterpoints’ even-strength production. As a whole through two rounds, his line has a positive goal and shot differential.
The problem with Nash is the environment required for his success. When Nash was torching the NHL early in the season, I looked into how he managed his success. What I found was a player who was being fed the puck in positions to succeed. Nash was receiving more pucks in open space, which was providing him looks with the goaltender in transition. Passes across the royal road, well-placed shots for him to tip, and teammates who were creating high-end opportunities and tons of rebound opportunities. The result was a career-high 42 goals, 36 of which were at even strength.
When we contrast where he has success with where he is taking his shots in the playoffs, we see why he isn’t producing at even strength.
On the left is the quality of shots Nash has created through the first two rounds of the playoffs and on the right is where he had success during his career season.
One quarter of his goals in the regular season were preceded by a pass. However, in the postseason, he has been the recipient of one pre-shot pass in total.
During the regular season, he was receiving royal road crossing feeds, as well as quick passes from the same side of the royal road that were limiting goaltenders reaction times with regularity.
This is not to imply that Nash has zero responsibility for his lack of playoff success. Tips and rebounds are teammate reliant, but are also hustle/positioning reads and plays. The problem is that while Nash is a big-bodied individual with great speed and agility, his game is reliant on help for success. Nash controls the neutral zone well and is very strong at attacking the offensive blue line. The issue is what Nash does when he gains the zone.
Looking at his individual zone entries and their impact on his shots show a player who gains the zone, but appears to lack the offensive creativity to slow down for his teammates, use his speed to the exterior or change pace to manipulate passing lanes. Nash generally comes over the line on his forehand side and with little to no imagination fires it on goal.
His high-grade chances on individual zone entries are the result of the breakaways that his speed creates off defensive and neutral-zone turnovers. Nash is most effective offensively off set plays and turnovers. He also finds success when he gives up the puck and fills lanes with hard drives to the net to receive passes, tips or capitalize on second chance opportunities. His game is extremely reliant on teammates finding him in transition.
When we question why he struggles to produce against the elite teams in the league, we have to factor in the increased defensive responsibilities of not only him, but of Derick Brassard and Martin St. Louis as well. If he becomes the main option to carry the play, he has a tendency to settle for low percentage exterior shots. He provides a stark contrast to Tyler Johnson, who has been using his speed to keep defenders off-balance. When defenders are aggressive, he beats them wide; when they sag he cuts to the center and opens up ice for his teammates.
As the playoff sample increases, Nash has morphed from a 36-goal regular season player to a 10-goal playoff performer. I’m not sure that it’s something that can be fixed by Nash, or if his game is simply being exploited with the defensive preparation that comes with every playoff matchup.
Head coach Alain Vigneault needs to find the right combination of players to get Nash the puck in soft spots in the defense, and compliment his style and skill set. If not, the struggles may continue.