New York Rangers forward Rick Nash is the team’s highest-paid skater with an annual salary cap charge of $7.8MM. Since being acquired from Columbus, Nash has been expected to lead the Rangers offensive attack while serving as a vital cog on a Stanley Cup contender. The team has made it to the Eastern Conference Final on two occasions and appeared in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final since the gifted winger joined the team. However, following a first-round playoff exit and a disappointing, injury-filled season from Nash in 2015-16, the Rangers focused on adding youth and speed to the forward ranks this summer, and as Brandon Cohen of Today’s Slapshot writes, the spotlight does not shine as brightly on Nash anymore.
As Cohen noted, in the past when the Rangers offense would struggle to put the puck in the net or convert on the power play, Nash “would have a target on his back.” But with the additions made in the offseason, and the continued development of players already on the roster, Nash can be just another one of the guys, so to speak, and essentially function in a complementary role.
Jimmy Vesey was the team’s most notable addition, signing with New York as a college free agent following a four-year career at Harvard. Through five games, the 23-year-old rookie winger has three goals and has proven he belongs in the top-six of a playoff team.
Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri add depth and serve as specialists, with Grabner seeing a lot of action on the penalty kill and Pirri with the man advantage. They’ve combined to tally four goals while playing mostly fourth-line minutes.
New #1 center Mika Zibanejad is off to a fine start, averaging better than a point-per-game with two goals and four assists. He’s been fantastic in the face-off circle winning nearly 60% of his draws and his right-handed shot gives the team an added dimension on the power play.
On top of the new additions, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider have combined to add five goals and 15 points. For his part, Nash has two goals and an assist through five games and is playing his usually terrific two-way game. With the talent and depth added up front, it appears Nash no longer has to be relied on to carry the load for the Rangers.
Elsewhere in the Metro Division:
- After losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs last season, Washington, much like the Rangers, went to work in the offseason to add speed to their lineup. Those efforts resulted in a rebuilt third line with Lars Eller, acquired in a draft-day trade with Montreal, centering a combination of Brett Connolly, rookie Zach Sanford and Justin Williams. As the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan writes, the new line is beginning to pay dividends for the Capitals. Eller, who cost the Capitals two, second-round choices, replaces veteran Mike Richards at the pivot position and tallied his first marker for his team in Washington’s 4 – 2 loss last night to the Rangers. Richards was signed during the 2015-16 campaign to fill a role on the third line but was a shadow of his former self, scoring just five points in 39 games with the Caps. Connolly was originally selected sixth overall in the 2010 draft but has yet to fulfill his potential at the NHL level. Still just 24, the untapped upside exists for this to turn out to be a smart signing for Washington. Sanford was inked after playing two years at Boston College and while he’s yet to find the score sheet, he’s had several quality scoring chances his last couple of games.
- The New Jersey Devils, who finished last in goals scored in 2015-16, made it a point to upgrade in that department this offseason. The team traded for Taylor Hall and Beau Bennett and added P.A. Parenteau via waivers just prior to the beginning of the season. Those additions were expected to boost the goal-scoring output for New Jersey, but as Chris Ryan of NJ.com opines, it hasn’t worked out as planned quite yet. Hall is off to a good start with three goals in five games, including the OT winner last night, but the Devils have managed to pot just eight so far this season. Fortunately for the Devils, they’ve allowed just nine goals and with Cory Schneider between the pipes should remain one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. But if they want to challenge for a playoff spot, the Devils need to get their offense cranked up.