Rick Nash‘s struggles, both real and perceived, in the playoffs this season have been well documented. Generally, the opinion of his playoff performance depends on whether or not you “do advanced stats”. If you’re the type who checks out Extra Skater after every game, you are probably more inclined to think Nash has played well in the playoffs but has been victimized by bad luck. If you “don’t do advanced stats”, then you probably think Nash has played like a third liner and deserves the same vitriol that Wade Redden knows all too well.
Nash and his (lack of) shooting percentage
In my opinion (and dare I say, “in reality”), Nash has been victimized by a mixture of bad luck and mental ineptitude. Nash has a career shooting percentage of 12.4%, yet he scored zero goals with 52 shots prior to breaking the seal against Montreal in game one. If Nash scored at his career shooting percentage, he would have had 7 goals. Shooting percentages tend to dip in the playoffs, but even if he scored at half of his career rate he would have had four goals through the first two rounds and would have been tied for the team lead.
The fact Nash piled on 52 shots without scoring is a statistical anomaly doesn’t absolve him of the sin of not scoring in the playoffs. But it does help put into context what exactly is happening with Nash. The path to a scoring slump such as the one Nash was in usually happens like this: a game or two goes by and you haven’t scored; clank, hit a few posts and another few games go by without scoring; realization that holy shit I haven’t scored in 7 games; becoming cognizant of not scoring impedes your ability to score; grips stick too tight and continues not scoring.
So how much criticism does Nash deserve for not scoring? Criticism commensurate with the latter stage of his slump. The mental part that only serves to increase the goal-less streak. Nobody can explain away Nash’s bagel in the goal column through two playoff series and remove all the blame. However, his lack of scoring needs context and understanding. For the sake of comparison, Nash’s struggles in the playoffs are helluva lot different than Thomas Vanek’s.
Nash’s overall game with the benefit of advanced stats
The second part of discussing Nash’s playoff performance is determining what he has contributed other than goals. I don’t want to say that people who “don’t do advanced stats” won’t pick up on this, but my sense is that generally, the opinion that he has played like a third liner would be popular with that crowd. My rationale for this is that your eyes lie to you. What you see is influenced by your perceptions and if you see that Nash hasn’t scored in 14 games your overall opinion of his game is probably going to fall victim to bias.
Nash has the highest possession percentage relative to his teammates, which makes sense considering the number of shots he has had. But he has accomplished this despite the fact that his line has faced the toughest competition on the team. For a player to have the highest possession percentage relative to his team while facing the toughest competition, he has to be playing well. That’s not something that can be accomplished by poor or even mediocre play.
Third liners do not face the opposing team’s best players and dictate play the way Nash has. Unless of course, you want to attribute these numbers solely to the play of Derek Stepan.
So where does that lead us? I would hope with a rational opinion as to how Nash has actually played this post-season. He hasn’t scored enough to this point. Two goals in 16 playoff games is not acceptable, regardless of his overall game. But a portion of that is luck and a portion of that is probably mental failure to overcome the circumstances; sort of like the mental failure of comparing Nash to Carl Hagelin this post-season. Aside from not scoring, Nash has still played like a top line player. Outside of scoring, he has arguably been the Rangers best forward. Which leaves us in this quagmire of struggling to conclude on Nash’s playoff performance thus far. This quagmire is going to be common in the brave new world that is the NHL with advanced stats.