The Lightning added some depth at the center position Tuesday when they claimed veteran Riley Nash off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets. He joined them in Toronto, where they play the Maple Leafs on Thursday.
“It’s been kind of a crazy 48 hours for me, for sure,” Nash, 32, said after Wednesday’s optional practice, his first with some of his new teammates. “... Obviously, I have some opportunity here with a really good team that’s back-to-back (champions) and has a really good chance again.”
Nash is a familiar face to the Lightning after playing against them each of the past three postseasons. He was a member of the Boston Bruins in the 2018 playoffs and Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 and ‘20.
“Just a reliable, hard, two-way center,” Lightning assistant Jeff Halpern said. “... I’ve not seen him this year, but the years in Columbus, just a guy who shows up every game and competes and organizes his line and is someone that as a team you rely on to kind of right the ship at times and defend and forecheck. So I think we’re real excited to have him.”
Nash, for his part, learned a few things about championship-level hockey from competing against the Lightning.
“They had that instinct that no matter how hard the road was going to get, they were going to get the job done,” he said. “Definitely made it really difficult on us. Obviously, they came out on top and went all the way. That resolve that they figured out was just how deep you have to dig, and now you’ve seen that in back to back years.”
Claiming Nash didn’t cost the Lightning anything. He’ll count $750,000 — the league minimum — against the salary cap and become a free agent at the end of the season, making him a low-risk acquisition.
Nash recorded 63 goals and 172 points, along with 138 penalty minutes, in 593 games over 11 seasons with Carolina, Boston, Columbus and Winnipeg. He averaged 11 points in his three seasons with the Blue Jackets following a career-high 41-point season (15 goals, 26 assists) in 2017-18 with the Bruins.
Nash, who had four penalty minutes and seven shots on goal in 15 games this season, said it was hard to find a rhythm with a different system in Winnipeg, especially since it was his third stop in less than a year. He played with Columbus in 2020-21 before being traded to Toronto for the playoffs and then signing with Winnipeg as a free agent this past summer.
“I’m just trying to find some consistency in my game this year,” Nash said. “I feel like over the past couple of years, that’s kind of what I do — steady in the d-zone, reliable, hopefully find some offensive touch again. I know in years past it’s been there, so I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of having the confidence and seeing the puck go in the net.”
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The Lightning are hoping Nash can bring some stability in the middle and additional flexibility. With extra centers, they can move one up or down the lineup to different wing spots, and it helps on nights they choose to play 11 forwards (with seven defensemen).
“I think the flexibility it gives us is probably the biggest thing,” Halpern said.
If Nash can do for the Lightning what he did for other teams in the past, Halpern said, he will free up minutes and slots for younger players such as Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk and Gabriel Fortier.
“He’s just a good player,” Halpern said. “Not comparing him to our young guys or our or veteran guys. He’s just a good player, and you can find a role and a spot for him, and maybe it frees up another player for his minutes.”
Nash already has some familiarity with his new team. Shortly after he was claimed, defenseman Zach Bogosian — who played alongside Nash in two games with Toronto last postseason — was the first teammate to reach out. Nash had breakfast with some of the guys before practice and was able to get a sense of the tight bond the team shares.
“(Bogosian’s) such an awesome guy,” Nash said. “He was one of the first people that I talked to, and (he) just talked about the group and how great they are, how tight-knit they are and just the way things are run here. That obviously gave me a lot of excitement right away. ... It’s a special group to be a part of, and I’m just hoping to add to it.”
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