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Open Spots Tempting for Nash

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
It’s another summer with another decision for Riley Nash.

Paul Branecky
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Ever since the playmaking center arrived at Cornell University, an NHL team has been trying to get him to leave. Each time, that choice has proven to be a difficult one, with his current dilemma no exception.

There are reasons to stay, namely that he’s just one year away from earning his degree and that he’ll be a senior member of the team for which he’s scored 102 points in 102 career games.

“I would be a leader on that team, which would obviously be big for my development not only as a hockey player but as a person, because I want to step up to the next level and be a leader as well,” said Nash.

Then, there are reasons to leave, which include an encouraging level of confidence that he’ll be able to shine at the next level.

“I feel like I’m ready to take the next step pro and I think I could play with the big guys, so that’s the other side of things,” he said.

The Edmonton Oilers, who drafted Nash with the 21st overall pick in 2007, decided they were unable to wait any longer for him to enter the professional ranks, which led to his trade to Carolina for a second-round pick in the 2010 draft. By acquiring that pick, the 46th overall choice, Edmonton assured that it would move up from the 51st overall pick in 2011 that it would have received as compensation were Nash still unwilling to sign after finishing at Cornell.

Nash said he didn’t blame the Oilers for making that choice, admitting that signing a contract with them at any point was not an absolute certainty, but is also aware that his new team is no less eager for him to turn pro.

”I’m just coming down here to see what it’s like and take in this whole experience (at the Hurricanes’ rookie conditioning camp), and then I’m going to go home and hopefully decide fairly soon just so I don’t have to keep people waiting,” he said. “I know they’re probably sick of it already, but I’m not doing it on purpose. I’m just trying to make the right decision for the long run.”

Despite his remaining uncertainty, Nash said that the Hurricanes’ inclination to let young players compete for open roster spots will impact his decision. In the Edmonton organization, he was one of many young up-and-coming centers, which could have made his path to the NHL difficult. While he’s joining an impressive cast of young forwards in Carolina, that pool is most thin at the center position, with as many as two jobs open at the NHL level to start the season.

”That’s a big factor, actually,” he said. “That’s why I’m pretty happy to be traded to the Hurricanes, because I know they have a few holes to fill. I know competition will be tough in camp, but I’m hoping that I can put my best foot forward and show what I have to show.”

Nash showed plenty on the first day of rookie camp, shining particularly bright in abbreviated two-on-two drills that allowed him to showcase a nice finishing touch and an ability to distribute the puck accurately in tight spaces. The latter skill is what caught the eye of Hurricanes’ Associate Head Coach Ron Francis, who spotted Nash at Cornell and recommended him as a potential trade target.

”There were times when I’d see him do something and say, ‘I’m surprised he saw that,’” said Francis, who knows a thing or two about vision on the ice.

While the Canes are still getting to know Nash, the effort will be mutual this week. As he weighs the pros and cons of leaving school, ironically, this week might have the feel of a college visit as he familiarizes himself with the area and the team’s staff.

“I’m meeting a lot of people and kind of getting a general feel for the organization,” he said. “So far I give at an A+ and I really love it here, except for the 100 degree heat.”

It’s tough to blame him on that last point (to be clear, he was joking), but it’s safe to say that an on-ice instructional staff including Francis, Tom Barrasso, Glen Wesley and surprisingly Rod Brind’Amour, who is trying things out as he prepares to make his own decision about life after hockey, didn’t hurt.

If Nash does choose to leave school, he’s expected to compete with Zac Dalpe, Patrick Dwyer, Jon Matsumoto and Jeff Skinner for third- and fourth-line center spots with the Hurricanes next season. With impressive camps, as many as three of those players could make the team with one moving to wing.

That opportunity, or at least the opportunity to play his first pro season in Charlotte of the American Hockey League and potentially see NHL games down the road, could be what points him in a different direction this time around.

“If he’s smart enough to go to an Ivy League school, he’s smart enough to make that decision,” said Francis. “He knows what I want him to do.”

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