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How Jon Cooper might use newly acquired Riley Nash

You might be surprised.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The waiver wire is something that a lot of fans fear, but also put a lot of stock into. Every time a player, especially a player that has a recognizable name, is put on waivers, there’s a bunch of speculation about which team is going to take the player and how he’s going to be a great player wherever he lands. The reality of the waiver wire is that a claimed player rarely turns into much of anything.

More often than not, a waiver wire claim doesn’t get to play very much and will often end up back on waivers before too long. Sometimes a team will take a flyer on a player, like the Lightning did with Danick Martel a few seasons ago and the Seattle Kraken did with Alex Barre-Boulet at the beginning of this season. When a team, especially one with the outstanding development and scouting reputation of the Lightning, lets a player go on waivers, more often than not, they know what they’re doing.

The Lightning hung on to Martel the whole season in the NHL, but he only played in nine games recording two assists. He passed through waivers the following opening night and spent most of the season in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch before being traded late in the season. Previously, the Lightning claimed Greg McKegg near the 2017 trade deadline because the Lightning were nearly out of the playoff hunt and had a ton of injuries. He played in 15 games and recorded one assist and then was a free agent at the end of the season. The Kraken tried out Barre-Boulet for two games before giving up on him as well and placing him back on waivers.

It seems like goaltenders are the most often players to be waived and end up being valuable for the claiming team. Goaltenders are much more variable and there are less jobs available for goaltenders around the NHL than any other position group. But for skaters? It tends to be a short trip or a lot of the press box.

I don’t feel like Riley Nash is going to be a player that will buck the general trend of waiver wire claims. He has great defensive metrics and he does provide some quality depth in that department. He doesn’t provide much in the way of play driving or offense though, which is likely the main reason that the Jets let him go. His best season was in 2017-18 with the Boston Bruins when he scored 15 goals, 26 assists, and 41 points, all career highs for him. Through most of his career, he’s been about a 0.25 point per game player, which is pretty typical of a decent third liner that doesn’t play on the power play.

As he’s aged though, that offense has slipped further. Since his departure from Boston after the 2017-18 season, he has recorded 0.17 PPG. Prorated out to an 82 game season, he’s been a 4 goal, 10 assist, 14 point type player. That’s more typical of an average fourth liner, but with his goose egg in 15 games this season, he’s been below replacement level offensively.

When I first saw the news of him being claimed, I thought maybe it was because another forward had been injured. It would make sense if someone was going to miss a few weeks to bring in Nash to help fill in the gaps.

However, the Lightning have already re-assigned Alex Barre-Boulet to the Syracuse Crunch. I felt like the writing was on the wall there as Barre-Boulet was knocked out of the line up by Fortier. That’s not good for a player that a lot of fans have said “Oh, he just needs a chance in the top six. He needs to play with good players, not fourth line plugs.” He has had an opportunity to do that since Brayden Point was injured, opening up a spot on the first line with Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos.

After Mathieu Joseph was injured in the game against the Minnesota Wild, Gabriel Fortier was called up as the 13th forward. I didn’t expect him to play, but Steven Stamkos had to miss a game in St. Louis against the Blues because of the birth of a child, and it gave Fortier the opportunity to suit up for his NHL debut. He played that game on the wing of Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli.

With Joseph getting injured and Steven Stamkos returning to the line-up, that allowed both Barre-Boulet and Fortier to remain in the line up in the top six. Joseph missed three games before returning to the line-up against the Flyers. We didn’t know it at the time, but it seemed that those three games were an audition for Barre-Boulet and Fortier for a line-up spot when Joseph returned. Ultimately, Fortier was the one that won that spot and impressed the coaching staff more. Not because he has more offensive potential than Barre-Boulet, but because he is a high-compete, hard working player that plays good defense.

The funny part of that analysis of “Barre-Boulet is better offensively, Fortier is better defensively” is that ultimately the way Fortier has played and performed looks better analytically than Barre-Boulet. While the Lightning generated more offensive chances with Barre-Boulet on the ice, Fortier wasn’t far behind him. And Fortier was significantly better at limiting chances and puck possession against giving him a better percentage.

Some of that certainly has to do with linemates, as Fortier has only played with Killorn and Cirelli (who is having quite the bounce back year defensively and should be in the Selke conversation), Barre-Boulet has also gotten those same chances logging most of his minutes with Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat. When not with that top line, he’s played a lot along side Taylor Raddysh and Ross Colton who have both had solid puck possession numbers this season when away from Barre-Boulet.

As for Riley Nash? Ultimately that depends on what the coaches think of Gabriel Fortier. If Fortier does well enough in their eyes to remain in the line-up, then Nash gets to serve some popcorn for a while and be an injury insurance policy for the next month or so until Point and Kucherov return.

However, if the coaches decide that Fortier isn’t fully ready and needs to head back to Syracuse and the AHL, then they could bring Nash into the line-up. He’d most likely slot on the fourth line and as a center could free up Ross Colton to move up to the second line with Cirelli and Killorn. Or Taylor Raddysh could get the nod with Nash or Colton moving to the wing on the fourth line.

With the way that Raddysh and Katchouk have played on the fourth line and driven puck possession, it’s quite possible that they could also jump start Nash. Who knows, if the Lightning can rehabilitate Nash in the next month or so while the team waits out their injury issues, maybe they can flip him for a low round draft pick when it’s time to put him on waivers again. But also maybe not. I don’t really expect that to happen, but you never know.