What We Learned: Why is Rick Nash so bad in the playoffs?

What We Learned: Why is Rick Nash so bad in the playoffs?

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.) 

Each year, the New York Rangers make the playoffs. Each year, Rick Nash is criticized for not producing.

This kind of thing is common in hockey, of course. Sidney Crosby has faced it. Alex Ovechkin has faced it. If you put up a lot of points in the regular season and then not-a-lot in the playoffs, especially if your team is unceremoniously bounced, then you get called out. No one would ever mistake Nash for a player of Crosby’s or Ovechkin’s level; he’s long been an All-Star but never has he been in the conversation for “best in the world."

But as far as Rangers go, he’s certainly the best they’ve got up front. He averages 0.47 goals per game over his career on Broadway, and he’s pushing 400 in the regular season since he broke into the league in 2002. Not world-beating, but always respectable, and when he’s got actual talent around him —which he does to some extent with the Rangers —he can produce. He has eight 30-goal performances out of his 11 full seasons.

The playoffs have been a different story, as everyone has learned time and again when watching pregame, between-periods, and postgame chats on the Rangers’difficulties putting the puck into the net in each of the last three postseasons (during which time they’ve always advanced at least to the second round). Nash has 50 playoff games in New York. He also has just six goals, or 0.12 per game. It’s a major problem.

But the question, then, is whether this is just another Ovechkin/Crosby/Stamkos run of bad luck; that is to say: Those players basically play at the same level and have suffered playoff difficulties because of hot goalies, bad luck, and maybe a few undisclosed injuries, so does Nash fall into the same boat?

And if you look at his even-strength performances in both the regular- and postseason in his career —Nash has only made it four times due to having languished in Columbus so long —you see the drop-off at 5-on-5 is about as stark as can be. (These numbers include only the first two rounds this year, and worse performances are indicated in red, better in green.)

The only thing that he’s doing better in the playoffs than the regular season is facilitating goals (the assists-per-60 number is up slightly in each case since he was traded). Otherwise, his possession drops because he takes fewer shots and gives up far more. His personal shooting percentage declines sharply, and his entire team doesn’t get the benefit of percentages when he’s on the ice.

In short, the criticism of Rick Nash’s play seems well-earned. He, unlike Crosby or Ovechkin or Stamkos, is not operating at his usual high level. A lot of the reason for this is, it’s often said, that Nash becomes more of a perimeter player in the postseason. The eye test and shot charts both bear out that the majority of Nash’s work has come along the boards, so it’s not a question of whether this happens, but why.

Some of that, you might be able to dismiss as “the playoffs are played tighter and the Rangers have run into good goaltending the last three years.”

That’s true to an extent. In the lockout-shortened season, Washington rolled Braden Holtby before Boston brought Tuukka Rask. Last season that was less the case, with Steve Mason, Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price, and then Jonathan Quick turning aside the vast majority of his shots. This year it was Fleury and then Holtby again. Not world-class goalies more recently (certainly not like what Ovechkin has faced in that same period), but certainly good enough to give any offense fits in short sets if things go their way.

So that doesn’t really explain why Nash’s production is down, let alone his possession numbers, shot quality, and so on. Where we start to see more understandable reasons emerge is when we look at how John Tortorella and then Alain Vigneault have used him.

Basically, the quality of his competition goes up —you can’t hide players with Nash’s skill level against playoff teams, because playoff teams are deeper and better-coached —and he starts fewer shifts in his offensive zone as a general rule. The latter hasn’t been the case this year, but the minutes certainly do get harder for him. And so as far as I’m concerned, that kind of begins to explain some things; Nash’s opponents are better in the playoffs than the regular season (which you’d expect) and he cannot be as sheltered as he is over the course of 82 games.

(This all comes with the caveat that we’re talking about just four samples of between four and 25 games, so these numbers can be volatile as well.)

I also wondered whether this was a function of him having different linemates or facing different players, but that was largely not the case. There were very few changes from the regular-season to the postseason in this regard, except that, as the usage chart shows, he was getting more time with better players on the other side of the ice.

But I still don’t think tougher usage alone is going to account for this kind of dramatic decline in utility for the Rangers. And while there aren’t many more ways to slice and dice the numbers to try to come to a reasonable understanding here, we have to return to that quality of competition thing. You certainly don’t score 42 goals accidentally in this league, but look at the teams against which Nash racked up the most tallies this year: There are some good ones mixed in there but a lot of that is against non-playoff teams.

And while non-playoff teams are obviously going to concede more to everyone, it also leads one to wonder what that means for his performances against better clubs, and specifically the ones he ends up having to play in the postseason. So if we filter out all the teams he might have beat up in the regular season, and only concentrate on how he fared against his playoff opponents, a lot more green starts to show up, and we start to see that, yeah, this might be a product of luck and variance to some extent.

That huge drop in personal shooting percentage and goals per 60 this year is because he scored a ton of goals against the Penguins this year on relatively few shots. But other than that, these declines are much more in line with just not getting bounces. Despite being a little negative, the numbers are much closer together, and so over the course of a 12-year career in which he’s made the playoffs only four times, you’d have to say that he’s within the margin of error, so to speak. Accounting for the added difficulty of his harder usage in the playoffs, and I think these numbers make a lot of sense.

So in the end, it seems that Nash just doesn’t do very well against the better teams in the league, especially when he’s not being sheltered. Now, that’s true of a lot of players, but if the question is whether he can’t rise to the occasion, the answer is clearly that he doesn’t.

But he never does against these teams.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Turns out the Ducks learned a lesson from that series against Calgary: Working hard is good. (P.S. Calgary didn’t work any more or less hard than anyone else.)

Arizona Coyotes: This is a totally unforeseeable circumstance!!!!!!!

Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara is old but please don’t bring that up to him because he’s still physically fit enough to beat your ass to death.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres might start their own Western New York sports network like NESN or the YES Network. Those things can be major money-makers, and if there’s one thing the Pegulas need it’s more money.

Calgary Flames: So 87 percent of Flames fans think this team makes the playoffs again next year. Who wants to be the one to tell them?

Carolina Hurricanes: Trade Cam Ward? Yes, absolutely. Trade Cam Ward because he has a high GAA? Uh…

Chicago Blackhawks: Brad Richards is going to turn this one cheap season in Chicago into one last big-money deal for two or three years, isn’t he? Someone will give him $2.5 million. You just know it.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs signed a guy who wasn’t even point-a-game in the DEL. But he’s 6-foot-3 and he’s not afraid to fight, so have fun in the AHL.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus is naming a captain on Wednesday and it could be anyone. Like Nick Foligno, or Nick Foligno. Or maybe even Nick Foligno.

Dallas Stars: There was a standoff late last week between police and robbery suspects at the parking garage next to the Stars’practice facility. Maybe the team can get those guys to play goal and have someone steal a game for them for once.

Detroit Red Wings: What do you mean the Babcock situation will all be wrapped up this week? Why can’t this drama stretch on all summer?

Edmonton Oilers: Hmm, corsi-driver Benoit Pouliot is…good? Hmm.

Florida Panthers: It will be something of a crime if Aaron Ekblad doesn’t win the Calder. To do what he did as an 18-year-old is amazing.

Los Angeles Kings: Any time you get a chance to read this annual collection of Darryl Sutter quotes, you need to take it.

Minnesota Wild: Devan Dubnyk wants to be paid as quickly as possible. Who can blame him? He and the Wild worked well together.

Montreal Canadiens: Yeah Michel Therrien isn’t a good coach. Sorry gang.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: The future seems pretty bright in Nashville.

New Jersey Devils: Why would legendary St. Louis Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur join the Devils?

New York Islanders: The Islanders are selling melted ice from Nassau for $20 a bottle. Incidentally, so am I. Prove I didn’t get this water from the tap.

New York Rangers: Brad Richards bought The Broadway Hat in Sweden, from a girl at a club, for $100. He could have gotten it for $18 at H&M.

Ottawa Senators: People are really coming together to find a liver for Eugene Melnyk. Very nice of the city considering their previous feelings about his ownership of the team.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers’defense is a mess, not an asset. I don’t know how anyone feels as though the latter could possibly be true.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens have a lot of problems on the roster, and it’ll probably take at least a few years to shake them all off. But what happens to Crosby and Malkin by then?

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are building a playground. Just don’t let Doug Wilson rebuild it a few years from now.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues had an equipment sale over the weekend. Unfortunately for the team, no one was interested in a slightly used Steve Ott.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs might try to sign Sheldon Keefe to be their coach when Mike Babcock goes back to Detroit. I mean, if. If.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks signed Jordan Subban. Hey, he can’t be worse than Luca Sbisa.

Washington Capitals: Counting on Tom Wilson to “elevate his game”is probably not a good thing for the Caps. Tom Wilson isn’t good.

Winnipeg Jets: So Connor Hellebuyck was pretty good at Worlds. He won a bronze medal despite not getting a ton of offensive help and went .947.

Play of the Weekend

The work by Kevin Hayes to set up this Dominic Moore goal was pretty nice.

Gold Star Award

Really great that the Red Wings are naming the trophy at the Traverse City NHL Prospect Tournament after CapGeek founder Matthew Wuest. Too bad none of the fans involved will know who he is because hockey fans don’t care about this sort of thing, right Gary?

Minus of the Weekend

Someone’s gotta put a body on that Putin guy.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Flamesarmstrong22”is perhaps overrating Drew Shore.

Drew Shore + WSH 2nd to Chicago for Andrew Shaaw + 5th 

Signoff

Not to put down my own gender or anything, but men can be real — excuse the yiddish here — insensitive schmucks.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here. 

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