TAMPA — When Riley Nash joined the Lightning on Dec. 7, he walked into his fourth different NHL dressing room in eight months. The 32-year-old center has learned that at this point in his career, he can’t plan too far ahead.
The Lightning claimed Nash off waivers from the Jets, with whom his offense had run dry, then his playing time followed. But with Tampa Bay, he has been thrust into the lineup as the fourth-line center, providing the depth necessary for the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion to get through an injury- riddled first months of the season.
It’s not easy to adjust to a new team and system on the fly, but Nash has gotten used to adapting. In April, he was dealt to Toronto from Columbus just before the trade deadline. In the offseason, he signed with Winnipeg. He had zero points while playing in 15 of the Jets’ first 24 games before being placed on waivers.
“We plan for no plans around here,” Nash said, smiling, after Thursday’s morning skate before that night’s game against the Senators.
Nash’s plan to fly to his hometown, Kamloops, British Columbia, for the holiday break went south, literally. But it will allow Nash, wife Clare and their 10-month-old son, Rhett, to spend time with some of Clare’s family in Florida. Transplanting a young family is never easy, but Clare has a job that allows her to work from home, making the move more manageable.
On the ice, the Lightning know Nash’s game well as a postseason opponent with Columbus and Boston, and he fills a huge need for them. Center depth has been depleted from the roster.
Last season, they had such a richness at the position that forwards had to move to wing. But they have been left thin this season with the offseason departures of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson, and Brayden Point suffering an upper-body last month that has him out until at least late this month.
The situation has forced Steven Stamkos to return to the middle, where he has flourished, and it has meant more playing time for two-way center Anthony Cirelli. But if the Lightning lose either of them, they play short, and that has happened already in the past month since Point’s injury.
Nash’s acquisition addresses that issue. He’s not going to play huge 5-on-5 minutes, but he can also contribute on the penalty kill.
This is Nash’s 11th season in the NHL, and he’s reflective about this point in his career. He’s making his living by being reliable in the defensive zone, killing penalties and winning faceoffs. And he looks at his arrival in Tampa Bay as a reset, an opportunity to work hard, trust his game and not overthink it.
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“It’s still kind of day by day at this point,” Nash said. “But it’s one of those things where I was kind of more looking into myself, if I’m going to be put on waivers and also what’s the reason for that. What am I doing on the ice or what am I not doing on the ice that’s getting me in trouble and in this situation? So it was a quick reset for me mentally.
“It’s just a matter of giving myself an honest shot, and I think I’ve done that so far.”
Tampa Bay might be the perfect place for Nash.
The Lightning’s system is detailed but not much different from the Jets’. Tampa Bay’s philosophy is that offense comes from playing responsible defense. And playing on a line with emerging young guns Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk, who have found their scoring touch in recent weeks, Nash won’t be counted on to carry a scoring load.
“Sometimes when you go to new places and talk with people, you kind of put expectations on yourself,” Nash said. “I’ve been through this before, and I’ve got to learn from it, right? So I think me having the mentality of just kind of having my back to the wall and playing my butt off and everything else kind of falling into place from there, plays will eventually happen, and that’s just kind of where my game will thrive.
“So I don’t know if I got away from that. I know I was working hard, but I don’t know if I was giving myself a shot (in Winnipeg). Trying to start fresh is always nice.”
Nash has seen his offensive opportunities pick up in four games with the Lightning. In 5-on-5 play, he has logged four scoring chances, all high danger. He had just five scoring chances in 15 games with Winnipeg. Nash also has won 55 percent of his faceoffs.
“He’s been a good guy, I’ll tell you that, and he’s as advertised,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s just a really good pro, and I think that’s one of the best compliments you can give a guy. He’s come in and been a really good pro. He’s asking the right questions. He speaks up when he has to, but by no means has he come in and tried to take over the room. It’s just fitting right in, and his play is dictating that.”
Joining the Lightning’s veteran team has been easier than Nash expected.
“If you would have done this to me about six or seven years ago, I would have probably been still in my shell,” Nash said. “I don’t think I’m outgoing in the (locker) room yet, but I think it would have been a lot longer process (a few years ago).
“It’s definitely helped that I’ve had to practice it a couple times, especially this last year. It’s been a wild, wild ride.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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