Most NHL prospects spend their formative years in the American League learning the finer points of responsible defensive play to complement their offensive skills. Now entering his third pro season, Riley Nash has taken the opposite path.
It was largely defense that helped the 23-year-old center turn heads at last year's NHL training camp, causing him to be the last player sent to Charlotte just prior to the start of the season. The same could be said of him earning his NHL debut in December and some eventual praise from Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford, who declared Nash to be further along in his development than many of his Checkers teammates.
Though happy with those results, Nash will enter this season with a focus on honing the other side of his game.
"I had a really good camp, but the numbers just weren't where they should be," said Nash of last season's slow offensive start that produced just 10 points in his first 43 games. "Both years I've gone in feeling great and have been in great shape, but I just haven't been rewarded for it."
Despite starting the season in a more prominent scoring role, Nash finished his sophomore campaign with 20 points in 58 games, down from the 32 he produced over 79 contests during his rookie season. Having averaged a point per game over the course of his three years at Cornell University, the early returns haven't entirely met his expectations.
Asked if there was anything specific he could do to produce more consistently, Nash said that he's spent his summer back in his home of Kamloops, British Columbia, reflecting on how he may alter his approach moving forward.
"I think you can prepare mentally so that you're confident making plays and being creative," he said. "You don't want to be careless, but you also can't be scared to make mistakes out there. I've been thinking about not trying to be so cautious."
In a league filled with players having to learn the opposite, Nash acknowledges the uniqueness of his situation.
"It might just be the way I am," he said with a laugh.
Despite not being able to turn the momentum from his strong preseason into the offensive breakout he had been hoping for, Nash did begin to find his stride around the time the calendar turned to 2012. Having received a boost from his first recall to Carolina, Nash scored eight points in eight games in January despite suffering a knee injury. Though that didn't slow him down, a second setback came in the form of a concussion in his first game back from his second NHL stint.
"Right when I was starting to come around I got hurt and then I got hurt again, and that interrupted my momentum," he said. "It was pretty frustrating. Your confidence is really high and you're ready to take that next step."
Instead, he missed over a month's worth of games and never hit his stride down the stretch, scoring just two points in 16 games as the Checkers suffered a late-season slide that caused them to miss the playoffs.
"All you can do for a concussion is rest, and even though I felt like I got back into game shape I just never felt great after that," he said. "It was hard to get back into a rhythm."
During a summer spent mostly back home, where he and his brother Brendan, a defenseman in the Montreal Canadiens system, have been putting a new boat to good use, Nash has also spent time thinking about the highlights of his most recent season, saying that his first brief taste of the NHL has better prepared him for his next.
"When you first go up you're so excited, you drive all day you can't rest like you would before a normal game," he said. "I think I'm a lot more comfortable with it now, and I think you have to be and you have to act like you belong if you're going to play at that level."
A natural center, Nash's path may have become more obstructed than it was at this time last year thanks to the organization's additions of an All-Star in Jordan Staal and a rapid up-and-comer in Jeremy Welsh. However, that hasn't taken away any of his determination to have the strong all-around start to the season that's eluded him in the past.
"I want to make it as tough as possible for (Carolina) to send me down, if that's their decision," he said.
Should that occur, he'll likely have every opportunity to pick up his offense, though he concedes that he still may not challenge for the team's scoring title. Even in a system suddenly stocked with centers, he and Zac Dalpe could potentially form a potent one-two punch for the Checkers at even strength and on the power play, where Nash recorded six of his eight goals last season.
"This year I'm really looking to start out strong," he said.