Nash revitalized skating with Crunch

Photo: Providence Bruins

📝 by Patrick Williams

Riley Nash needed something ― anything ― to turn around his season, even if that meant going back to the American Hockey League for the first time in nine years.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired the 32-year-old center from the Arizona Coyotes for future considerations at the National Hockey League trade deadline March 21, the deal may have escaped the notice of many outside the organization, especially amid that day’s standard chaos.

But for the Syracuse Crunch, a team that finally had started to find its way after several false starts earlier in a trying regular season, the acquisition certainly did not go unnoticed. Fresh off a key 5-4 overtime win against Belleville a night earlier, the Crunch were a season-high six games over .500 at 28-22-6-2 and in the midst of a 6-1-0-1 surge.

Still, if head coach Ben Groulx’s club was to have a chance to make noise this spring in the Calder Cup Playoffs, it needed another offensive piece for the lineup, someone who could take some of the scoring burden off Alex Barré-Boulet, Gabriel Dumont, Charles Hudon, and rookie Cole Koepke.

Nash and his 627 games of NHL experience have more than fit that job description for the Crunch. Ranked 27th in league scoring (2.74 goals per game) as recently as Feb. 18, Syracuse is averaging four goals per game since Nash’s arrival and is now up to 12th overall (3.22).

Nash, who had no goals and four assists in 49 NHL games this season, has nine goals and eight assists in his 15 games with the Crunch.

“It’s nice to see some pucks go into the back of the net again,” he said.

Quite frankly, Nash needed the move to Syracuse as well after going through the most challenging 12 months of his career. Acquired by Toronto from Columbus on Apr. 9, 2021, Nash signed with Winnipeg in the offseason and went 15 games without a point for the Jets before landing on NHL waivers. Tampa Bay claimed him on Dec. 7 and he lasted all of 10 games with the Lightning, still going without a point, before another waiver claim by Arizona on Jan. 6. Nash played 24 games and managed four assists with the Coyotes before Tampa Bay management struck to bring him back to the Lightning organization.

“It’s been crazy,” Nash said. “You go into the year investing everything into thinking, ‘Hopefully at the end of the year we’ve come together as a team and made the [Stanley Cup Playoffs] and put together a run.’

“And then that’s kind of ripped out from underneath you. So you go through that same process of investing that into Tampa, and then a similar thing happened. So, it’s been a little bit challenging. I’ve been a little bit frustrated just because I don’t think I’ve played my best.

“I know in [the NHL] that if you play well enough, then teams will want you, and they’ll keep you around. I haven’t quite put my best foot forward. But you just try and take everything in stride, and…prove to other people and prove to myself that I can still play in [the NHL] and still be valuable to somebody.”

Nash is going into this summer needing another contract to prove that he can still be valuable to an NHL roster. Returning to the AHL for the first time since the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, when he was a Carolina Hurricanes prospect with the Charlotte Checkers, might be part of that path back.

“Although this year has been a very unique year, just being kind of all over the place, [Syracuse] has been great,” Nash said. “The coaching staff has been really accommodating, really great. The players have been awesome.

“It’s been just trying to win hockey games and help this team any way possible.”

Syracuse has won four in a row entering the final week of the regular season and is 11-3-1-0 since adding Nash; all three regulation losses were at division-leading Utica. The Crunch outscored their opponents 16-4 during last weekend’s three-in-three sweep that helped them to claim a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Having climbed to second in the North Division, the Crunch (39-25-7-2, .596) host three postseason-bound clubs to wrap up their regular season, beginning tonight when Providence visits Upstate Medical University Arena. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is in town on Friday, and Saturday’s match-up with Laval could be a division semifinal preview. This week’s action also concludes a furious rush of games for the Crunch, who went three weeks between games due to COVID-related postponements in December and January. Playing 55 games in 116 days from Jan. 5 to Apr. 30, Syracuse has put together a 19-4-1-1 home record during that stretch and has outscored their opponents 44-15 during their current 10-game home winning streak, the AHL’s longest this season. The Crunch can match a franchise record with an 11th consecutive home win tonight.

The trade has also allowed Nash to take on a much different role from what he had played in the NHL this season. Now he is counted on to help drive the Syracuse offense rather than trying to eat minutes for an NHL team. Nash is rediscovering some of the creativity that once allowed him to post career highs with 15 goals and 26 assists for the 2017-18 Boston Bruins. Winnipeg was struggling, Tampa Bay was very deep at forward, and Arizona is rebuilding. But going to Syracuse meant that Nash could retool his own game away from the NHL spotlight while also trying to push a promising Crunch club into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Photo: Scott Thomas

“It’s been a grind, just trying to be as responsible as possible defensively,” acknowledged Nash, whose plus-10 rating is tops among Crunch forwards this season. “The best games that I think a lot of players play are when they’re just in the flow, they feel good, and they’re not thinking so much. It’s been kind of a battle to get back to that point.

“I feel like [the new role in Syracuse is] pretty good for my game. I’m making plays. [Playing a safe, conservative game] at times is what’s needed. But other times, I don’t think safe really gets you that far. So, it’s been good to be able to get out there with some guys and be forced to make plays, be counted on to score goals, to put up points, to help the team offensively, and to put pressure on that aspect of my game again, because it had been a while since I’ve really been counting on to be consistent threat offensively.”

And for the rest of the season at least, Nash finally has a bit of stability. No more waiver claims. No more scrambling to the airport to catch a flight to join another team and walk into more unknowns.

“I’ve found that my personality does better when I’m in a situation for a little bit longer getting comfortable,” Nash explained, “and then I can relax, and I feel like my game really takes off. I feel like that’s been part of the problem with the last year, year-and-a-half. [I have] just been on all these new teams and getting used to the systems, juggling coaches, teammates, personalities, everything. It’s just been a lot.

“I think that’s going to factor in and, yeah, it’s just been a tough, tough stretch, where I haven’t had a whole lot offensively to feel good about and to hang my hat on. I have felt good in Syracuse, so hopefully it translates back to the NHL level if I get another opportunity.”

Nash offers the Crunch an NHL-caliber face-off presence who has found chemistry with another in-season addition, Anthony Richard, playing on his right side. Taken 21st overall in the 2007 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, Nash played three seasons at Cornell University before turning pro in 2010 and going through three AHL seasons in Charlotte. That experience a decade ago – to say nothing of this season’s frustration – enables Nash to relate to his younger teammates facing their own career hurdles. He went to the Eastern Conference Finals with Charlotte as a rookie and knows the postseason challenges that await the Crunch.

“I think you realized that the deeper you go, every play matters, every shift matters,” Nash said of his early pro playoff lessons. “There are no shifts off. You play so many games in the regular season, you kind of get away with mistakes at times.

“But in the playoffs, it’s game-to-game, shift-to-shift, moment-to-moment. I think that really helps guys, especially when they’re getting called up. You don’t have 40-50 games of leeway [in the NHL]. You have one game, one shift, to make an impression. I think it’s good for all those young guys to get this experience, to be in the fight, to be competing for something that’s really a big honor.

“[The Calder Cup is] a special trophy.”