Though it’s common procedure for an NHL recall, having never been through the experience before, Riley Nash wasn’t sure what to make of it when Checkers coach Jeff Daniels called him into his office last week.
Still in the process of receiving stitches above his lip at that moment immediately following the team’s most recent game, a 4-3 overtime loss to Oklahoma City at Time Warner Cable Arena, Nash’s mind began to wander in other directions.
“I didn’t know if I was being traded or what,” he recalled. “You just never know. When I found out, I was pretty surprised.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that Nash knew for certain that he was about to make his NHL debut that night, as Carolina Hurricanes center Tim Brent was officially ruled out due to an injury suffered during practice one day earlier. That meant an end to Nash’s holiday plans as he knew them, as he headed directly to Raleigh instead of his native British Columbia as scheduled.
Even though he never made it home, instead heading down to Florida for a few days following his two-game stint in Carolina, it’s safe to say he didn’t mind too much. He recorded an assist on Andreas Nodl’s goal in his second game for his first NHL point, balancing out yet another gash he suffered on his first NHL shift two nights earlier. Together with two separate cuts on his chin he picked up earlier in the season, that brought his facial scar season total to four.
“The left side of my face is taking a beating this year,” he said. “After the one in Carolina, I told them if there was any way they could stitch it up later and just stop the bleeding for now, that would be great.”
Now back with the Checkers to continue his second professional season, Nash will have a chance to build on confidence gained during his first NHL experience. With teammate and fellow center Zac Dalpe headed in the other direction shortly after his reassignment, Nash, who had been on Charlotte’s fourth line for the majority of Dalpe’s now-concluded month-long AHL stint, will move back to a scoring line with Zach Boychuk and Jerome Samson to start Friday’s game in Rockford.
“He’s a guy that we want to have produce, although he’s not the only one,” said Daniels of Nash, who has 9 points (2g, 7a) in 31 AHL games this season. “With (Drayson) Bowman and Dalpe in Carolina we lose some scoring, and he’s one of the guys that have to step up.”
Asked whether a successful NHL debut, in which he played alongside team captain Eric Staal at times, could help him do just that, Daniels, who is used to seeing the effects of recalls and reassignments on his players, didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “You’re always working for that recall, especially the first one, and it’s good for him to know that he can play well at that level.”
Though the Checkers are counting on Nash, a first-round pick (21st overall) by the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, to provide more offense at some point, his defense is what earned him his NHL debut. Daniels was quick to praise his work in his own end and on the penalty kill, the former of which has proved to be something of a requirement for new Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller when calling for reinforcements.
“They’re looking for guys that are responsible,” said Daniels. “That’s really the consistent message I’ve gotten from Kirk.”
With that accomplished, Nash acknowledged he may need to actually take more risks in order to become a consistent scorer, something he knows he can attempt with Charlotte rather than at the NHL level.
“I was on the fourth line and just trying to fill in with Carolina, so I wasn’t trying to score three goals or anything like that,” he said.
While a hat trick would be nice, it won’t be a necessity for Nash now that he’s back in the AHL, even if increased offensive production clearly is the goal.
“I’m hoping I can pick it up and make up for the first half of the season,” he said.
Daniels said that center Cedric McNicoll, who has been out with a lower-body injury since Oct. 28, is set to make his return to the lineup for this weekend’s games in Rockford and Chicago on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Rookie Justin Shugg, who left midway through the team’s Dec. 15 game and did not return, is expected to miss “at least a few more weeks,” according to Daniels.
Jon Matsumoto, who missed the third period of the Checkers’ most recent game, is now healthy following a 10-day break in the schedule.
“I think we needed the break to let guys rest up from a few injuries,” said Daniels.