An appreciation of the underappreciated Rick Nash

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Rick Nash announced his retirement from the NHL on Friday, officially ending a 15-year career that was far better than it was ever given credit for being while it was happening.

He is a perfect example of how team success drives the narrative around an individual player, and just how difficult, if not impossible, it can be for one player to alter the path of an entire organization — especially in a sport like hockey where one player can never carry an entire team on their own.

When you look at what he actually did in the NHL, he was outstanding. He was one of the best goal-scorers of his generation and a constant force when he was on the ice. He could drive possession, he became one of the league’s most dangerous and effective penalty killers, and he had immense skill that produced some breathtaking plays with the puck, such as this goal that happened nearly 11 years to the day.

Still, his entire career seemed to be dogged by criticism for what he didn’t do, as opposed to what he was doing.

And what he was doing was scoring a hell of a lot of goals and at a level that few other players during his era ever reached.

He spent the first nine years of his career (and his best years in the NHL) stuck on a fledgling Columbus team that could barely get out of its own way and seemed completely incapable of building anything around him.

[Related: Concussion issues force Nash to retire from NHL]

Anytime a player is taken No. 1 overall (as Nash was in 2002) there is always going to be an expectation that they are going to be the turning point to help lead a franchise stuck at the bottom of the league out of the darkness they are in.

In the NBA, one superstar can do that because of how much they play and how much of an impact one player can make due to the size of the rosters and how much the best players handle the ball.

In the NFL, a quarterback can do that because of the importance of the position and the impact it has on every game.

But in the NHL the best players only play, at most, a third of the game. When they are on the ice the puck is probably on their stick for about a minute of actual game time … if that. That is not enough time to carry an entire team.

Not even a player like Connor McDavid is capable of lifting a team on his own.

Just consider what Nash did during his time in Columbus.

During his nine years there he scored 289 goals, a number that put him among the top-eight players in the entire NHL. That’s an average of more than 32 goals per season, and the only two years where he didn’t score at least 30 were his rookie season and the 2006-07 season when he scored 27 in 75 games.

He won a goal-scoring crown in his second year in the league at the age of 19. Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk (nine each) were the only players to have more 30-goal seasons during that stretch. In the end he did what was expected of him. The problem is that during those nine years there was nobody else on his team that was anywhere close to him, or anything close to being an impact player.

Only one other player in a Blue Jackets uniform scored more than 90 goals (R.J. Umberger scored 94) during that stretch, and only other other (David Vyborny) scored more than 80. With all due respect to Umberger and Vyborny, both of whom were solid NHL players, if they are the second and third most productive goal-scorers on your team over an entire decade then things are probably not going to go well for your team.

There was never anybody else that could help carry the load offensively.

For his career, he ended up tallying 437 goals, a number that was topped by only three players during his years in the NHL (Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Patrick Marleau).

He was not only an outstanding player, he was one of the most underappreciated players of his era.

He was one of a handful of players from his era that were better than they were given credit for during their primes.

Among them…

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — These two were the foundation of the San Jose Sharks organization for more than a decade and both put together Hall of Fame worthy careers. The thing is, they spent most of their time together being more of a punchline because the Sharks were never able to get over the hump in the playoffs. As the best players on the team, they were often the ones wearing the target for the criticism when things went wrong in the playoffs.

By now you have probably seen the stat that was circulating around last week regarding Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin having the same number of points from the start of the 2005-06 season when they both entered the league. It was impressive, and awesome, and a testament to their dominance in the league.

What stood out to me was the fact that Thornton was third on that list. Despite those years all coming in the second half of his career when he should have been, in theory, significantly slowing down. He never really did. He just kept dominating.

As for Marleau, well, just consider that he has scored 72 postseason goals in his career. No player in the NHL has scored more than him during the duration of his career. Even if you take into account that his career started way before many active players, he is still in the top-four since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Tomas Vokoun — In the 10 years he spent as a starting goaile between 2002-03 and 2012-13 there were only four goalies in the NHL that appeared in at least 200 games and had a higher career save percentage than him — Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne. Vokoun wasn’t just underappreciated, he was legitimately one of the best and most consistent goalies of his era. There is an argument to be made that Luongo also falls in this category, but he’s been around long enough and accomplished enough that I think the league has started to appreciate him for how good he has been. But Vokoun never really got the recognition, mostly because he spent the bulk of his career as a starter stuck on a bad Florida Panthers team. The only three times he had an opportunity to play in the playoffs, he was just as outstanding as he was during the regular season.

During the 2003-04 postseason in Nashville he recorded a .939 save percentage in a six-game first-round series loss to a heavily favored Detroit Red Wings team. During that series he allowed two goals or less in four of the six games … winning only two of them. In 2012-13, when he was a backup to Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, he took over early in the first-round of that postseason and helped backstop the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final with a .933 save percentage. That postseason run ended very similarly to his 2003 postseason by playing great for a team that could not give him any offensive support.

Patrik Elias — Elias’ career was fascinating because he spent the bulk of it playing in one of the worst eras ever for offense, on a team that was synonymous with defense, and yet … he was still one of the most productive players of his era. And everyone outside of New Jersey just kind of forgets that he existed. He played 1,200 games in the NHL, he topped 1,000 points, and he was a top-15 player in goals and total points during his career.

He is one of just 56 players in league history to have played in at least 1,200 games and record at least 1,000 points. Out of that group, 37 of them are already in the Hall of Fame and over the next decade there are probably quite a few more that will join them (Jaromir Jagr, Thornton, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Jarome Iginla).

Given all of that Elias had a borderline Hall of Fame career, especially when you factor in the fact he was a top player on two Stanley Cup winning teams, and he is mostly just kind of … forgotten.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Islanders’ point streak hits 16 games, a new franchise record

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The Penguins spoiled the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak, but not the Islanders’ point streak, back on Nov. 7. The Islanders really haven’t slowed down since then, as Thursday’s 4-3 OT win against Pittsburgh extended their latest winning streak to five games, and allowed them to set a new franchise record.

By going 15-0-1 in their last 16 games, the Islanders set a new franchise mark for longest point streak. Yes, that means Barry Trotz’s odds-defying group has accomplished something the dynastic Mike Bossy-powered ’80s group never did.

At this rate, the Islanders might just bank enough standings points that it might not matter much when/if they “come back to Earth.”

In the spirit of Derek Jeter wedging his jersey number into a word where it only kinda sorta works, the Islanders embraced the history of the 16-game streak:

When you’re winning (or at least getting a point) as often as the Islanders have been, you’ll need to win in different ways. After some comeback wins recently, Thursday’s game against the Penguins was a back-and-forth affair where the two teams traded leads, and the Penguins needed a last-minute goal to even get the game to overtime. Brock Nelson‘s two goals were key, including his OT-winner:

There’s been a “cardiac kids” element to this run, especially lately. Thursday’s win marks the third consecutive game where the Isles’ action went beyond regulation, and six of the Islanders’ wins (plus their lone OT loss to the Penguins) have come via either a shootout or overtime goal.

This also marks the best 20-game start in franchise history for the Isles, according to The Athletic’s David Staple.

Just resounding stuff.

It says a lot about the Capitals’ own hot start (16-4-4, 36 points in 24 games played) that the Islanders still aren’t in the lead in the Metro. Of course, the Islanders could close a ton of ground considering their games in hand, as they’re 16-3-1 for 33 points in just those 20 games played.

Looking ahead, the Islanders will go on the road quite a bit as they try to extend this point streak even beyond 16 games. To start, they’ll take a California road trip, and the away-heavy stretch doesn’t end there.

Nov. 23: at San Jose
Nov. 25: at Anaheim
Nov. 27: at Los Angeles
Nov. 30: vs. Columbus
Dec. 2: at Detroit
Dec. 3 :at Montreal
Dec. 5: vs. Vegas
Dec. 7: at Dallas
Dec. 9: at Tampa Bay
Dec. 12: at Florida

As you can see, the Islanders face a run where eight of their next 10 games are on the road. You’d think that maybe there will be stumbles (dare I wonder, *gasp* maybe even a single regulation loss?) along that way, but the Islanders keep buzzing along, and they’re 6-1-0 on the road thus far this season … so who knows?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Rask gives Fleury competition for save of the week/year

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When Marc-Andre Fleury flashed the glove for a ridiculous save, PHT’s Adam Gretz was right in wondering if calling it a save of the year candidate was an understatement. And then Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask came along and gave Fleury competition for save of the week.

Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues had so much net to aim for, but also needed to get his shot off quickly. As much as the Bruins swarmed the situation — making for an even better visual — Rask ended up having to save the day, and that he did.

This would have been an amazing glove save, but Rask managing the feat with his blocker hand is just … wow. Watch in awe in the video above.

It sounds like even Rask was impressed.

Again, wow. Let’s take a paragraph break to just mutter wow a few times.

Now, let’s compare and contrast: was it more or less amazing than Fleury’s save? Don’t say it was a tie, cheaters.

Now, what do I think is the better save? Uh …

(Tries to throw a smoke bomb and run away, but Rask and Fleury keep batting it around between each other.)

The save ended up being important, as the Bruins narrowly beat the Sabres 3-2 on Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

More injuries for Penguins as Schultz, Bjugstad out long-term

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All season the Pittsburgh Penguins’ injury situation has been a case of one step forward only to be followed with two steps backwards.

As soon as they get a key player back from one injury, somebody else seems to almost immediately exit the lineup with another injury.

That trend continued on Thursday when the team announced before their game against the New York Islanders that forward Patric Hornqvist will be returning to the lineup, while Nick Bjugstad and Justin Schultz are both going to be sidelined longer term.

Bjugstad had already been sidelined since Nov. 15 and is going to miss approximately eight weeks after undergoing surgery on a core muscle.

When it comes to Schultz, the Penguins would only say he will be out “longer-term” due to an undisclosed lower-body injury.

Schultz played the entire game against the Islanders on Tuesday, but exited practice on Wednesday and did not return.

The Penguins are already playing without captain Sidney Crosby and top defenseman Kris Letang.

At different points this season they have been without Crosby, Letang, Hornqvist, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Jared McCann, Bryan Rust, and Brian Dumoulin.

Together that group has already combined to miss 65 man games due to injury, a number that is only going to continue to increase in the short-term. Despite all of those injuries they have still managed to remain competitive — while playing very well — in the Eastern Conference and remain on a 98-point pace for the season entering play on Thursday. If they can ever get healthy and stay that way they would seem to have the potential to be a top contender in the Eastern Conference. It is just a matter of whether or not they will ever be able to get there.

On Thursday the Penguins will be trying to snap the Islanders’ 15-game point streak. The Islanders rallied late in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to keep it going. The Islanders’ only loss during this streak was an overtime loss to the Penguins a couple of weeks ago when they surrendered a three-goal third period lead.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.