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Nash will give Jackets something they needed: a right-hander at the dot

Veteran center has improved on face-offs while maturing into key NHL role player.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Winning face-offs, especially as a right-hander, was one of the traits that made Riley Nash an attractive option for the Blue Jackets to sign July 1 as an unrestricted free agent.

Versatility and underrated offensive skills were attractive, as well, but Nash - a 29-year old center who signed a three-year contract with Columbus - could become a key role player simply by winning some big face-offs.

"It's going to be great to add a center, a right-handed center that we don't have," said Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets' general manager. "You need the right-handed center for that side of the ice, for the face-offs. It's really hard to go against a right-handed center, on his strong side, with a left-handed guy who's on his weak side."

Nash, who met with reporters Monday at Nationwide Arena, knows exactly what his new GM is talking about. His NHL career has spanned seven seasons and two previous teams - the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins - and he's noticed at each stop how important those hidden skills can be.

"Face-offs are one of those unique things about the game now that are so specialized," said Nash, who spent the past two seasons in Boston, where he studied veteran centers David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. "Learning from Bergeron and Krejci, who are two of the best in the game, in my opinion, you kind of pick up little nuances that work for you. You just pick up those little things in the face-off circle that kind of help things go in your direction."

They definitely went Nash's way in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons.

His career win percentage on draws during regular-season games is a respectable 48.4 percent, but in the postseason he's won 56.9 percent of his face-offs, all in the past two seasons with the Bruins. He credits some of that success to simply matching up in practices against two of the best in the game.

"You could say there were some learning experiences," Nash said of facing Krejci and Bergeron. "It's part of the game and that obviously dictates when you have the puck, and whatnot, so you've got to bear down and get the job done [on face-offs]. Those guys are so good in the circle that you've got to take everything you can get from them."

They weren't the only ones who've helped Nash mature. There were plenty of other teachable moments along the way, courtesy of opposing centers. In fact, Nash still remembers the first NHL face-offs he ever took, back when he made his debut Dec. 21, 2011 for the Hurricanes.

He was 22, playing his first professional season after three years at Cornell University, and Nash went 3-for-13 on face-offs in a 4-3 loss to the Phoeniz Coyotes - an icy 23.1 percent. Particularly memorable were his matchups against former Coyotes center Cal O'Reilly, who went 5-for-7 against Nash in that game.

"I remember my first face-off in the NHL," Nash said, chuckling. "I went up against a guy in Phoenix that was a really grizzled old veteran, and he just dominated me. I was just like, 'OK, this is like a Welcome to the NHL kind of moment.'"

O'Reilly is only three years older, but he'd already played five professional seasons at that point, split between the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL). He was physically stronger, quicker on the draw and not real impressed by Nash's first attempt to beat him.

"He was a lefty and I tried to poke his stick, and he just looked at me like he was my dad," Nash said, laughing. "He had so much more strength than me. I was like, 'OK, I need to figure this out pretty quick, or else I'm going to be out of here.' I wasn't laughing on the ice, but when I got back to the bench I was laughing pretty hard. I was like, 'That was like I when I was 8-years old and my dad was teaching me things on the ice, and I couldn't even get the puck away from him.' It was pretty funny."

He's come a long way since that game.

Nash has taken 3,849 draws in the NHL, winning 1,86, and now he's the "grizzled vet," in many of his face-off matchups. He's exactly what the Blue Jackets were hoping to add - a right-handed center who's proven at the dot.

"When you look at his stats, at his face-offs, you can see a real clear correlation," Kekalainen said. "You're just not going to win too many face-offs against a guy who's on his strong side. That's the easiest way to put it."

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