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Rick Nash doesn’t make sense for the Leafs... yet

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But in the summer....

Calgary Flames v New York Rangers

As was reported recently by TSN’s Frank Seravalli, Rick Nash would allow the Rangers to trade him to Toronto, as part of his limited no trade clause. Because we are Leafs fans, it is essential that we speculate about this.

Nash is not a logical fit for the Leafs — at least not right now. He’s still a very good player, but the Leafs are already stuffed to the gills with wingers. Nash is better than most of them, but it’s not as if a scoring winger is a huge need for the team right now.

As such, it is very difficult to view this news as ... news. Players have many teams on their trade acceptance list, and Toronto just happens to be one of them for Nash. It’s also possible that he listed Toronto specifically because he (or more realistically, his agent) knows that they wouldn’t be interested in his services. That means Nash could effectively make his NTC even stronger, and narrow down his possible destinations further.

So Nash doesn’t really make sense as a target now. However, he would make some sense as a unrestricted free agent target this summer, for a couple reasons.

For one, he can still score. His mark this season of 1.85 points per 60 minutes ranks him 97th in the league among skaters with more than 500 minutes. Essentially, his scoring is commensurate with that of a low-end first liner, or high-end second liner. Restricting to primary points shows something similar. He’s no longer elite in this measure like he was early in his career, but he still provides notable value as a 5v5 scorer.

His individual shot rate has fallen over the last few years, which is to be expected with age. However, he averages about 18 shot attempts per 60 minutes this year — the same as last year’s mark, and a top-15 mark in the league. He’s no longer one of the five best shot generators in the world like he was two or three years ago... now he’s only one of the 15 best. As you can see, this is a bit of a trend with him. He’s no longer elite, but formerly elite players have a long way to fall before they’re no longer useful, and Nash is not even remotely close to that point.

He’s also a decent driver of play. After a down year in this regard in 2016/2017, he’s rebounded with strong shot results on a team that largely very poor at them. This is in line with the rest of his career, where he’s been a positive relative shot attempt player. He generally faces tough competition with good, but not elite linemates — some of his most common linemates over the last three years have been Mats Zucarello, Derick Brassard, and Derek Stepan. Solid players, but no superstars among them.

Perhaps his most useful skill is that when he is on the ice, his team shoots from very close into the net. He personally exhibits the same trait.

Perhaps not coincidentally, he has managed to sustain high on-ice shooting percentages for many years. His career on-ice shooting percentage at 5v5 is 9.3%, notably above the league average, even for a top six player. Over the last three years, his xGF% has surpassed his FF%, which seems to indicate that he’s receiving some form of shot quality boost when he’s on the ice, relative to what he concedes at the other end. Nash also has the bonus of having a history of playing the PK (adds some versatility) and being able to sustain positive penalty differentials.

Nash is not great defensively, but you know who else isn’t? James van Riemsdyk.

That’s the role I think Nash could play effectively for this team. I’ve written before about how the Leafs will not be able to fully replace JvR internally, and I stand by that. With JvR not on the roster, we take a step back. That said, he will deservedly command a lot of money and those demands will make it hard for the Leafs to keep him.

As a short-term stopgap, I think Nash could fill in for what JvR currently provides. They have similar scoring rates and shot profiles — they’re always in and around the net. JvR has had better impacts on shot attempts recently, but part of that has to do with usage; he has spent the last two seasons with top-six caliber linemates against generally weaker competition. I don’t think quality of competition is everything, but especially this year, van Riemsdyk is benefiting from it.

The above makes it seem like JvR’s forward linemates are in line with his opponents, but the Leafs’ third liners were Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak for much of the season, who are generally better than the third liners of other teams.

Now compare this to what Nash sees, and keep in mind that Nash’s common teammates are Zuccarello, Hayes, and Mika Zibanejad (again, all solid-to-good players, but not elite)

All told, I think there’s a reasonable case that Nash would be a solid replacement for what JvR provides. There are obviously some caveats. Nash will be 34 by the time next season rolls around, and it’s possible (and likely) he declines further. I would not want to make a long-term commitment to him. One year would be ideal, two at the very most.

The Leafs committing resources to their area of greatest strength, even if Nash is an upgrade on the internal options, is also questionable. It would make more sense for the Leafs to take a big free agent run at Mikael Backlund, or use the cap space to in a trade for a player who fills a more pressing need for the team (centre or right defence, specifically). That said, it is worth noting that Nash plays the left side, where the Leafs are comparatively weaker; Kasperi Kapanen, the one Leaf who you could plausibly argue as an internal replacement with scoring upside that matches what Nash could provide, is a right winger.

We’re also not sure if Nash even wants to come here as a free agent, or what his salary demands would be. Matt Cane’s salary predictions (which have been accurate in the past; if I recall correctly his average absolute error is less than 18% for forwards) has Nash making about $3.5M on a 2-year deal. If the Leafs sign him to a deal like that, I think I’d be ok with it. On a one-year deal, I’d be willing to bump the AAV up further, but I doubt Nash would go for that. Let’s assume the 2-year deal.

For less than JvR’s current salary, you’d get a player who has scored at the same rate on a worse offensive team, with more difficult usage. His shot impacts are not as positive, but pre-Babcock, neither were JvR’s, and I’m betting that coaching can coax a little more out of him in that regard. This would allow the Leafs to maintain their incredible forward depth while not making significant long-term commitments.

So all told, where do we end up on this? I find the idea compelling, but given the Leafs’ hole at centre and right defense, it’s hard to argue that this is the best use of $3.5M - $4.5M in cap space. I do think Nash would be a good fit, but I explore high end centre options like Backlund and Tavares first, and by the time those are resolved, Nash might already be off the market.

Still, if he’s interested in a low-term deal, I definitely kick the tires on it. van Riemsdyk is very hard to replace, and is often undervalued by Leafs fans. He can’t be replaced by just anyone. But Rick Nash isn’t just anyone.