Rick Nash never fully delivered on the promise he seemed to offer when he arrived five years ago – and Rangers fans seem oddly at peace with that.
Big No. 61 has faded into the Blueshirts’ background now; the super-talented and versatile forward has topped out at being a good teammate and mostly steady presence for the New York Rangers in his five seasons on Broadway.
And that might prove to be Rick Nash’s most notable achievement with the Rangers – accomplishing something all but unheard of in New York sports.
As he heads into the final year of the huge eight-year, $62.4 million contract he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009, Nash has somehow managed to avoid the curse of the superstar athlete that doesn’t match expectations in the Big Apple: He’s become just one of the guys. In fact, he sometimes seems to hardly be noticed on a mostly superstar-free team nowadays, with Rangers fans more likely to obsess over whether Chris Kreider will take the next step or J.T. Miller will finally put it all together or Ryan McDonagh will more progressively resemble Brian Leetch on the ice next season. Nash just takes his shifts, amazingly, all but free of high hopes.
It wasn’t always this way.
Fans drooled over the arrival of the 6-foot-4, 212-pound winger that was the top overall pick in the 2002 draft in the summer of 2012, a player that combined power with the hands and shot of an elite scorer that was going to be the game-breaker the Rangers needed to get over the playoff hump and capture another Stanley Cup. He had been a dominant force with mostly bad Columbus Blue Jackets teams, reaching the 30-goal mark seven times in his nine seasons with them and hitting 40 twice. At age 19, he became the youngest goal-scoring champion or co-champion in league history when his 41 tallies tied for the NHL lead in 2003-04.
He was to be the perfect offensive complement to the gritty “Black and Blueshirts” who had reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 on the strength of their blood-and-guts defensive approach after being acquired in what looked like a steal of a trade (though that’s no longer the case, given the strong careers of Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov along with the loss of a precious first-round pick).
“Just think it was a deal we couldn’t turn down,” then-Rangers general manager Glen Sather told Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com at the time. “This type of player doesn’t become available very often. This is a very important deal for our hockey club.”
The thinking was sound. The Rangers had been a playoff team in six of the previous seven seasons, never falling close to the bottom of the NHL and consequently earning access to the elite players at the top of the draft that comes with such a plummet. Seizing the opportunity to add such a player was a no-brainer. And yet …
Nash looked like the real deal in his first season in New York, recording 21 goals and 21 assists in 44 games of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. However, he managed one goal and four assists in 12 playoff games as the Rangers failed to match the previous season’s accomplishments, as they were eliminated in the second round.
It was an unfortunate sign of things to come for Nash, especially the next season.
He was able to rebound from an early season concussion that cost him 17 games and posted 26 goals and 13 assists in 65 contests. But he mostly flopped in the playoffs again, and this time it proved much more costly.
Nash had only three goals and seven assists in 25 games as the Rangers made their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to Los Angeles in five games. He did not score in the first 11 postseason contests. It was a bitter disappointment for the team and its fans, who directed much of their ire at Nash – the star who failed to deliver in the big moments, as he had been brought to New York to do.
He certainly wasn’t the only player that struggled through a rough postseason, but Nash, perhaps fairly, carried the heavier burden on his back. One can only imagine how much more pressure he would have faced had the Rangers not acquired another veteran star, Martin St. Louis, late in the season. St. Louis’ eight goals and seven assists in those playoffs came with a heart-wrenching story of personal loss and seemed to elevate the team.
Nash’s flameout, though, couldn’t be ignored – and it wasn’t by fans stunned over his lack of postseason production, in a town accustomed to expecting greatness and then lionizing playoff warriors like no other city in the country.
His best professional season followed, a 42-goal, 27-assist effort with a plus-29 rating in 79 games of excellence in 2014-15. He was better in that postseason with five goals and nine assists in 15 games, delivering a pair of huge performances in the Conference Finals against Tampa Bay, with two goals and an assist in a 5-1 Game 4 win and a goal and three assists in a 7-3 Game 6 road route that forced a decisive seventh contest at Madison Square Garden.
But Nash, along with his teammates, failed to score at all in that one and lost 2-0.
That was the Rangers’ last trip to the conference finals, and expectations for a return have slowly faded in the ensuing two seasons. Oddly enough, the same has happened for Nash, a surprisingly graceful and gradual slide into a sort of equality with his teammates for one of the NHL’s elite talents.
And that seems almost unheard of. In New York, a star’s failure to deliver a championship when brought in for that specific purpose is remembered and revisited. Reggie Jackson will forever be a legend in this town. Randy Johnson is remembered for being a terrible fit who couldn’t duplicate his Hall of Fame dominance, especially for a 2006 Yankees team that looked ready to roll to another title.
Was Nash the classic good player on a bad team that thrived in a small market with low expectations, shrinking in the searing spotlight of the big city?
“I think pressure is a great thing if you use it in the right way,” Nash told Jeff Klein of The New York Times when he arrived.
It’s not that fans have given up on Nash and turned on him the way they have other imported stars who didn’t win titles in New York. They appreciate his hard work and defensive play that often rivals his offensive abilities. It’s more like they’ve calmly concluded he wasn’t the missing piece to a championship team and accepted him for what he is now – a solid player who isn’t a playoff difference-maker in the mold of Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby.
How un-New York like. And it’s difficult to think of another athlete of Nash’s caliber and situation that followed anything close to a similar arc among the city’s sports teams.
Maybe it’s because he’s such a good guy, too difficult to hate, let alone run out of town? Who knows. Other than that 42-goal season, Nash hasn’t reached the 30 mark with the Rangers, with injuries also taking their toll on his production.
The marriage between the Rangers and Nash has simply never been quite right, anything but a perfect fit. He is a low-key, blue-collar personality in a city that embraces big egos and big talents and big performances to match like no other.
While it’s possible the sides could agree to extend their time together in the offseason, perhaps for one or two years, most fans are more excited about Nash’s $7.8 million salary slot opening up and giving the Rangers cap space to re-sign rising youngsters like Miller, Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey.
Nash teased the MSG faithful against Montreal in the playoffs last season, scoring two key goals in that six-game first-round victory and playing like the physical force he can be at times. Barring a deep playoff run that at this point looks even more unlikely than the one in 2014, though, fans probably will have trouble coming up with a signature Rangers moment for the big guy. Even harder will be defining his legacy in blue and white and red.
Is it being just one of the guys? Maybe every fan can appreciate that.