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Rick Nash and the loud, inevitable Rangers fan backlash

There’s a certain perverse pleasure one takes in seeing Rick Nash lustfully booed by his own fans each time he touched the puck in a playoff game.

It’s not that Nash is a bad guy, because he isn’t; he’s been a charismatic pro in every interaction I’ve had with him, even while wearing a mo-cap suit. But as a player, he embodies two traits I generally loathe in professional athletes: Ones that don’t have the stones to tell their fans when they want out, and those who play worst when the games matter most.

Nash doesn’t have a goal in 11 playoff games this season, and hasn’t tallied a point in his last eight, including the Rangers' Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.

Last postseason, he had one goal in 12 games, and before that one goal in four games in the lone occasion when this superstar helped the Columbus Blue Jackets reach the postseason.

That’s two goals in 27 playoff games, or a 0.07 goals per game average.

For his career in the regular season, Nash has a GPG average of 0.43.

It’s not so much that Nash isn’t a big-time goal scorer on the biggest stages, it’s that he’s completely invisible. Two goals in 27 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Two goals in 19 Winter Olympic games. But boy did he tear it up in the N.I.T., er, the IIHF world championships, a.k.a. spring vacation for playoff losers: 23 goals (!) in 34 games.

And so he’s lustfully booed by New York Rangers fans, watching their team struggle offensively and Nash serves up a donut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But don't weep for Rick Nash: He chose this team and this city and these fans as the next stage of his career.

It's OK that Nash requested a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was told the team would likely rebuild again, he wasn’t down with that, despite being two years into an 8-year, $62.4 million deal. The problem is that he withheld the fact that he requested a trade from fans and media, creating a backlash against management and having Blue Jackets fans papering Nationwide with “Please Don’t Go Rick” signs when they thought he was being forced out.

Eventually, GM Scott Howson grew tired of Nash’s agent grandstanding to the media, playing the victim card for his client, so he tossed Nash under the C-Bus and revealed his trade demand.

The Rangers were always the assumed destination, because they were potentially the only team for whom Nash was going to waive his no-trade clause. “I thought the Rangers were perfect. I think they have an amazing team,” said Nash in July 2012. “I think it was a great fit for my style and to play there."

That was Nash then. This is Nash now:

The Rangers, understandably, rallied around Nash. "Rick is trying real hard. He had some real good looks. Obviously, he feels a lot of pressure right now. I've got to tell you, he's battling real hard," said Coach Alain Vigneault, who has watched Nash take a playoffs-leading 45 shots.

“Does it upset me? Yeah, it upsets me, it upsets everybody in the locker room,” said Brad Richards. “We’re not 15th in the league, we’re in the second round of the playoffs.  But that’s my opinion. I understand sports and where it’s all at and so does he and so does everybody in here. But it’s not just him, it’s not just one person. It’s the whole team. We didn’t play tonight and for one or two guys to get booed, that’s frustrating as a team.”

(Hey, Richards should be happy; the more attention given to Nash, the more it’s not falling on his friend Marty St. Louis’s lackluster series and bigger role in the disaster that’s the Rangers power play.)

Is the Rangers’ 3-1 deficit Nash’s fault? No, despite the booing and the scrutiny he’s getting.

Is he playing terribly? No, and in fact his possession numbers have been fantastic in relation to the rest of the Rangers, even in Game 4.

(Anti-stats idiots will point to his Corsi and his lack of goals and try to use this as a way to undermine their value, which is a bit like criticizing the Butterfly Effect for not teaching us enough about how insects eat pollen.)

There’s also a school of thought that Nash hasn’t been the same player since his latest concussion in Oct. 2013. That his offensive game has become too passive, too much to the walls and reliant on long distance shots. His goals-per-game in the regular season after he returned to the lineup was 0.42, which is in line with his numbers from 2009-11 with Columbus but down from his output last season with the Rangers (0.48). But obviously, in the playoffs, there have been a lot of shots but nothing in the net.

This is all to say that this Rangers playoff swoon isn’t all on Rick Nash, but that he’s hardly blameless. Maybe the Rangers didn’t know what kind of big-stage performer they were getting in Nash. Maybe Nash didn’t realize that he’d never be anything but a lightning rod for jeers if he failed to perform to the standards of his salary in New York – ask Chris Drury about that.

Maybe when the team he begged out of Columbus to join wasn’t a perfect match after all.

Maybe he's more Main Street USA than Broadway, NYC.

 

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