When Cam Atkinson came back from injury last week, John Tortorella faced a dilemma.
There was no doubting one of the best players in franchise history would go back into the lineup. It was more a question of who would come out.
Tortorella ended up settling on Sonny Milano, but it wasn't an easy choice - or a popular one among the fan base. A factor that went into it, though, was the head coach not wanting to break up a fourth line centered by Riley Nash that has done its job over the past few weeks as the team has become the hottest in the NHL.
"I think Sonny has struggled the past couple of games, but not (enough) to take him out of the lineup," Tortorella said upon Atkinson's return Thursday vs. Carolina. "But I like some of the things that have gone on with other lines, especially that (fourth) line, where I think I need to take Sonny out for tonight's game."
And the mainstay of the fourth line is none other than Nash. A free agent signing two summers ago, Nash has settled in as the center on a line geared toward playing simple, straight-ahead hockey, the type that has marked the Blue Jackets' play while winning 15 of the past 21 games and earning points in 19 of them.
Fanciness isn't really part of his game, but Nash has carved out a good role for himself with his play. He signed with the Blue Jackets coming off a career year in 2017-18 when he was moved up to top-line minutes for Boston and totaled career highs across the board when he had 15 goals, 26 assists and 41 points.
His initial foray with Columbus took a while to find traction, as a year ago, he had just a goal and four points in the first 45 games. But his game improved over the final half of the season - he finished with three tallies and nine assists for 12 points - and he was a noticeable player during the playoffs, notching a momentum-turning goal in the sweep of Tampa Bay and being sorely missed when a thunderous hit against Boston from Zdeno Chara spelled the beginning of the end of his season in the second round.
This year has seen an uptick in offense, as Nash has four goals and seven assists for 11 points. But he's also not necessarily counted on for offense, as the role of the line has been to play straight ahead and try to set a tone. And during the team's 21-game hot streak, of the players to be on the ice for more than 10 games, Nash has the best mark of expected goals against per 60 minutes with just 2.05 allowed, making any offense an added benefit.
"I think every guy will say they're not satisfied with their offensive numbers, whether it be you always think about the ones that you miss or the opportunities that you shank, I'll say," Nash said. "I'd definitely like to contribute a little bit more offensively, but I think the style of play that we're doing isn't very risky.
"You have to earn it each and every night, and you have to go about it the right way. If we can contribute regularly, that's a bonus too."
Tortorella has been happy with how the 30-year-old center has contributed, as shown by his decision to stick with that line despite having other options available. There have been times that Tortorella has described it as the team's most consistent line, and against Vegas, as the Blue Jackets were in the midst of some troublesome starts to games and periods, he turned to Nash's line to begin periods and set a tone.
It's also been impressive how Nash has kept the line's identity the same despite playing with different players throughout the stretch. While Jakob Lilja has become a mainstay as one of his wingers, Nash spent a number of games with NHL rookie Ryan MacInnis on his other side, and of late, the speedy Eric Robinson has been adding another element to the equation in MacInnis' place.
Before that, Nash was a calming influence for rookies Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom for a time, and he's also suited up with wingers Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano and Kevin Stenlund over the past 20-game stretch.
"I think he's playing some of his best hockey for us since he's been here," Tortorella said of Nash. "He's had a number of different wings there. I really like the identity of that line. … Nasher is a big part of that. He's handled himself really well in having wings shuffled around him, and himself personally I think is playing his best hockey."
Nash said he's enjoyed getting the chance to play with a number of the youngsters as the year has gone on. What is clear is that whoever ends up on his line, the expectation from both the coaching staff and Nash is the same.
"I don't know if we're setting the tone," Nash said. "I think we know what we need to do and what our role is in the group, so we're just trying to do that, execute that to the best of our abilities, and if we chip in offensively, that's great too."