clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Can Riley Nash fill the hole at centre on the Leafs?

New, comments

He’s not the name on everyone’s lips, but could a depth signing of this sort make the Leafs better?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Four

Riley Nash is a UFA centre, and that means the Leafs need to at least consider his fit on the team.

The Contract

Nash has an interesting contract history. At 29, he’s about to sign his fifth deal. He started out on an ELC with Carolina in 2010 that had an AAV of $875,000. Some of that was performance bonuses that I doubt he ever earned. He exited that deal with a base salary of $787,500.

Next, he signed a two-year deal with the ‘Canes for an AAV of $575,00, which is below what his qualifying offer would have been. He then re-upped in 2015 as an RFA with a one-year deal that would leave him a UFA when it was over. So, Carolina declined to ever buy any UFA years. They did, however, pay him $1,150,000 for that year, and then when it came down to it, played him less than 13 minutes per game.

In the summer of 2016, the Hurricane’s waved goodbye, getting nothing for him, as he signed in Boston for two years at $900,000 per year. And here we are in 2018 and he’s a UFA again, having finished his second year in Boston at over 15 minutes per game.

Matt Cane’s model predicts his salary at anywhere from $2 million to $3.5 million depending on the term. I’m not going to argue with that model, because it has a good track record for accuracy. But if that comes to pass, it illustrates that no one can decide if Riley Nash is a depth player or if he’s more than that. But he’s hung around this long, so he’s going to get paid what is likely too much as he rolls into his thirties. That’s just how it works.

The Playoffs

For me, and for you, I would imagine, I mostly think of Nash as one of the guys who helped beat the Leafs in the first round last season.

When I looked at that playoff round from a Leafs perspective, I found that while Nazem Kadri and Tomas Plekanec had trouble with versions of the Bruins middle six when David Krejci was the centre, they handled their minutes on the ice against Nash much more easily. The goal differential favoured the Leafs as well as the shot share. The same held when Boston played Tampa. Nash had very poor results by any measure.

But a nine game playoff stretch is not what you judge a player on. Particularly not when it came on the heels of a puck to the head injury that required a lot of stitches and caused a concussion.

The Career

Nash has spent five and a half seasons playing on teams who have been at least in the top half of the NHL in Corsi. Boston has been second the past two years. So, it should not surprise that Nash has never dipped below even in shot share ever in his career.

In his most recent regular season, he has such gaudy Corsi numbers, exceeded by his on-ice goals for percentage, that it is easy to see why he’s going to get something in line with the prediction of multiple millions.

Now, part of the reason he looks so good is that he’s had some very tasty goaltending behind him the last two years. It’s amazing what moving from Carolina to Boston can do for how good you look at preventing goals.

The 2016-2017 season in Boston was not great for him in on-ice scoring, but then, no one on the Bruins put it in the net until Claude Julien rode off for Montréal, where no one can put it in the net. Nash under Bruce Cassidy last season looks superficially exactly like the player who can take on a larger role and flourish, which is exactly what the Leafs want in a depth centre.

His Usage

As you may know by now, I’m not going to talk about the location of faceoffs taken, the so-called zone starts, when I talk about usage. I prefer other methods of assessing how a coach sees the player.

I’m going to focus mostly on his last season in Boston, as well, because he has undergone some serious changes in coaching and teams prior to that.

Cassidy used Nash primarily when a goal against would do the most damage. He wasn’t used when the Bruins were in a deep hole, but he did see some reasonable minutes when the were well ahead. He holds leads; he doesn’t go out and get them.

Last season he played against a very even mix of competition, so let us not speak of that again. The strength of his teammates, the thing that matters more, was very heavy on the middle six forwards and very light on the fourth line, but he did get to roll with the top line some of the time. He filled in for Patrice Bergeron during his injuries in the regular season and in the playoffs.

To name names, Nash’s most frequent forward linemates last season, in order, were: David Backes, Danton Heinen, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Tim Schaller, Noel Acciari.

That’s the full top to bottom of the team in six names. But 200 minutes with Marchand and Pastrnak is likely to do good things to anyone’s results. However, his shot shares with Heinen and Backes are out of sight. That was a very, very good line.

Now what they did with all that zone time, shooting and domination of other teams is another story. The heat map of Nash’s on-ice shots for is not all that great.

That nice red blob in the high slot/left circle is fine, but the cool blue at net front is not. Part of that is a Boston thing. They improved their shot quality quite a bit under Cassidy, but they didn’t perfect it. However, the team without Nash is better than the team is with Nash on the ice. Bear in mind, that a lot of the without Nash time is made up of the Bergeron line in action.

Nash’s personal shot map shows his on-ice pattern, and comparing it next to Nazem Kadri’s is very interesting:

I don’t think Kadri shoots well. Relative to Auston Matthews, the king of both shot quality and volume, Kadri is spending way too much time outside the high-danger areas. Nash is the same only more so but also less so in quantity.

We don’t expect a three-million dollar man to be Auston Matthews or even Kadri, but Nash is not going to wow you with shot volume or quality.

Now about the shot share — the gaudy Corsi numbers. Is that him? Or is it the teams and the linemates he’s playing with?

The Bruins were better at limiting the highest danger shots when he was on the ice. And they are very, very good to start with.

But now I’m going to name some more names. The defenders he played with most: Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Torey Krug. The time on ice is weighted to Chara a bit, but he saw a fairly even mix, and contrary to what people tend to think about the Bruins, getting minutes away from Chara and McAvoy is actually better for the shots against. It certainly was for Nash.

Nash’s results are heavily influenced by his time with Heinen and Backes, but the interesting thing is that in over 100 minutes, that pair were still very good without Nash. The real trouble came when Nash and Backes played without Heinen.

I think Danton Heinen is one of the most underrated young players out there, and some of what we can see in Nash is the glow of the sun from this more talented player. Some of what you see, I want to emphasize, not all.

The Conclusion

Riley Nash is not as good as he looks. That was my preconceived notion, and I’ve not found anything to completely overturn that, but he’s better than I expected.

Nash is one of the top players on the Bruins in Expected Goals percentage. But Heinen is number one, and has a percentage so big, it just screams out play him more. The more complex relative stats that try to slice out teammate effects back up the view that Nash is good to very good in his role, but Heinen is lights-out great.

By the way, Heinen played with Trevor Moore in college, and worked that magic on that line too. Moore is a good young player, but it’s clear now who the drive train of that line was and to what extent he was the man making it happen.

Nash is a decent penalty kill centre, and in the interests of thoroughness, I’ll look up his faceoff percentage, which is in the 50 per cent range where everyone is, so he’s as good as he needs to be there. He doesn’t take penalties, and he doesn’t draw much either.

Assume a world where you can’t get John Tavares, but you can get Riley Nash. Three million, give or take for a few years of the peak/gentle decline of a centre who has excellent fundamentals, has played a grit game on the Bruins, a speedier game on the Hurricanes, can play with the top line or the fourth line, and might not light the world on fire or really score any goals to speak of at all, but will reduce your facepalm per 60 to something a lot more reasonable than it has been?

I say yes. The Leafs have wingers to do the scoring on either a third or fourth line. But unless he plays more than the 10-12 minutes of five-on-five he’s been tasked with for most of his career, the improvement over Bozak isn’t going to move the needle much on the Leafs overall effectiveness and won’t at all make up for Bozak’s power play points. He really needs to be a full-time third line centre to be worth it.

The Bruins had to play him more last year, and until the injuries hit in the playoffs, he seemed to be up to the challenge.

If Nash were 25, I’d be ecstatic at the prospect of getting a centre of his skill set at a nice low price. But you usually have to draft those yourself, so unless the Leafs have a home-grown solution, maybe a few years of Riley Nash is exactly the bridge the team needs from Tyler Bozak to the future.

Notes on the numbers that aren’t here

I don’t like looking at the results of a player on one team and having that sit in opposition to the Leafs’ players’ results. It’s misleading, and goggling at someone’s Corsi from the Bruins tells you the guy played on the Bruins and not much else.

For usage, I used the various team deployment charts at Hockey Viz that show game state, competition, shot share and linemates.

For performance with teammates, I used the teammates list and the line tool at Natural Stat Trick and the Wowy and Spider charts at Hockey Viz to get a general impression of his play style and results.

For discussion of expected goals, I looked at on-ice xGF% at Corsica (which doesn’t let you link to particular tables of data), and for relative numbers, I used the RelTxGF%, if you want to look that up and see the numbers for the various Bruins players.