The signing of Riley Nash has fallen far below expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
To help shore up the team’s always-distressing center depth, the Blue Jackets signed Nash over the summer to a three-year, $8.25 million contract. Conventional wisdom said the signing—one of two NHL-level UFA signings the Jackets made last summer, along with Anthony Duclair—was an underrated pickup for a depth forward who could improve the team from the faceoff dot.
Halfway through his first season, it hasn’t gone according to plan. He enters the weekend with one goal and four assists, one more point than Lukas Sedlak (who has played 14 fewer games). His ice time, which topped 17 minutes in the season’s second week, plummeted to a season-low 6:05 last Thursday against Nashville. He’s been bumped from a center who sees some third-line duty to strictly fourth-line right wing, perhaps because his faceoff percentage ranks the worst among CBJ centers at 43.5 percent. The Hockey News called him the “least cost-effective signing of the offseason” earlier this week.
By nearly every conceivable metric, Nash is having one of the worst years of his career. He was brought in as a sort of replacement for Matt Calvert—to kill penalties, get the puck out of the defensive zone and help shut down the other team’s offense. He played his way off the (now-good) penalty kill in the first month of the season and was tied for the worst WAR on the team heading into Tuesday’s game using evolving-hockey.com’s model (Goals Above Replacement/season goals per win), but let’s explore what else he brings to the club.
He only has one goal, but maybe he generates offense in other ways. Let’s check the hockeyviz.com WOWY (With or Without You) chart. In short, it’s not ideal. The red squares show how the players do (with respect to 5v5 score-adjusted shots/60 for and against) without Riley Nash, the black shows the players with, and the blue squares show Riley Nash without that player. His current linemate Oliver Bjorkstrand performs better without him (notably so), though he hasn’t played a ton with Nash. Sedlak plays slightly better with Nash.
Hannikainen hasn’t played away from Nash enough to qualify for the WOWY chart (only 53 minutes), so we can’t assess how he does without No. 20. We can see that Nash does a little better defensively with Hannikainen. In short, pick almost another forward and they’re likely doing better on a line away from Nash, with the glaring exception of Brandon Dubinsky. Though if you look at CF%, the players he shares the ice most frequently with do improve by a couple of percentage points than without him, and that’s a mark in his favor. That said, we’re not talking about a large portion of the team.
Another way to assess offense is this 5v5 pass types chart from Corey Sznajder, and you can see Nash isn’t setting up a ton of high-danger scoring chances. If you want to argue this squares with his role on the team, you certainly can, but let “$2.75 million for three years” ring around your brain.
OK, so Nash doesn’t score all that much, but he does help defensively. Using evolving-hockey.com’s team skater chart (below), you can see that even as he struggles to generate offense (like, a lot), he holds his own as a defensive forward. The Y-axis measures Even-Strength Defense Goals Above Average (per position), while the X-axis covers offense. You can also check this on-ice threat chart from hockeyviz that places Nash as one of the team’s best defenders among forwards. This is likely why he continues to earn a lineup spot with John Tortorella, who notoriously emphasizes defensive responsibility.
That’s good! That’s what a fourth line is supposed to do on the other end of the ice. Another data point: Nash is on pace to register the most defensive-zone starts of his career while playing five fewer minutes on average than last year. Some of this is role-based, sure, but if you’re looking for a reason as to why he’s not eating popcorn instead of playing, there you go.
Now, $2.75 million per year might sound like a lot of money to you and me, but is it a fair salary for a 29-year-old bottom-six forward? Here are some other players in the relatively same stage of their career and role:
- Matt Martin ($2.5 million, 5 goals, 5 assists)
- Derek Forbort ($2.5 million, 1 goal, 8 assists)
- Valtteri Filppula ($2.75 million, 10 goals, 10 assists)
- Marcus Foligno ($2.875 million, 3 goals, 6 assists)
- Matt Calvert ($2.85 million, 7 goals, 8 assists)
- Erik Haula ($2.75 million, 2 goals, 5 assists, 15 GP)
Not all of those players are in the same defensive forward role where Nash currently finds himself, but you’d probably swap any of them out.
Maybe there’s a turnaround in the offing. His assist on Sunday against New York snapped a 19-game pointless streak, and it’s always tough to start a new job in an unfamiliar place. Maybe the current combination of Sedlak, Bjorkstrand and Nash will yield results. The return of Dubinsky and Hannikainen could rekindle some chemistry. Perhaps the All-Star break will allow him to recalibrate and come back with some juice. Either way, they’ll need a strong fourth line to compete for the Cup, and there’s plenty of competition at the bottom of the lineup.