|Oilers prospect Riley Nash will be returning to Cornell University for his third season. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
It’s a four-hour drive from Consort, Alberta to the province’s capital, but the Oilers are hoping Riley Nash can make the one-way trip, via Ithaca, NY, in four years or less. The club’s first-round pick (21st overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft has completed a second successful year at Cornell University, and although a third – and perhaps fourth – season of NCAA competition are in Nash’s the future, Oilers brass are anticipating big things from the versatile forward.
“He does a lot of things really well at both ends of the ice – he’s a good face-off guy, he’s a good powerplay guy, he’s a good penalty killer,” Oilers Assistant General Manager Kevin Prendergast says. “He’s the type of player that’s going to play anywhere from your second to your fourth line when he gets here because he understands the game so well.”
"I see myself early on as a third line or fourth line centre but that's where everyone starts," said Nash of where he might be slotted in when he does initially join the NHL.
This past season with Cornell, Nash averaged a point and penalty minute per game, good for first on the team in scoring. During his freshman year in 2007-08, the forward was equally impactful, finishing first on the team in assists and second in points -- numbers that earned him ECAC Rookie of the Year honours. Prior to joining the Big Red, Nash dominated the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks for a season, posting 84 points and 87 penalty minutes in only 55 games, finishing among the league’s top 10 scorers.
His decision to go to Cornell is one Nash hasn't second guessed.
"When I was looking at schools I had the option of North Dakota and Denver but I made the decision when I was going to play college hockey I wanted to get an education with it," he said. "Cornell is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the education you get there is second-to-none."
Nash’s consistency at Cornell has vaulted him up many Oilers top prospects lists, including the franchise’s spring 2009 assessment at Hockey’s Future.com. The website listed Nash second behind only Jordan Eberle, an improvement by two spots over last year’s ranking.
Mike Schafer, Head Coach of the Cornell club, has watched Nash develop into a stronger, smarter player over the past two seasons and hopes to see more of the same in 2009-10. "His greatest attribute is his hockey sense. He's a tremendous offensive talent, a very dependable player defensively, and has the ability to play both ends of the ice."
When comparing Nash's freshman start with the finish of this past campaign, Schafer has seen significant physical improvements in his star forward. "He continues to adjust to the pace of the college game with poise and patience and continues to get stronger defensively and offensively," says the Big Red's bench boss. "He put on about nine pounds last summer, and I think when you put on that kind of weight, it's a double-edged sword. He wanted to impress at the Oilers development camp and at the World Junior camp, but it's difficult to put on that kind of weight while trying to play hockey all summer."
|Nash takes part in a drill during the team's Development Camp in Sherwood Park (photo: Andy Devlin/EOHC) |
Prendergast is confident in Nash’s ability but admits his size is still a factor at this stage.
“He’s only 175 pounds, so we’ve got to get him bigger. He’s tall enough at 6’1” but he’s got to get bigger and the time at Cornell isn’t going to hurt him.”
Whether it takes one year or two for Nash to attain an NHL stature is yet to be determined, but the Oilers aren’t rushing him and will assess the 20-year-old’s development at the club’s prospect camp this summer.
“We don’t want to turn him pro when he’s not ready to turn pro,” Prendergast emphasizes. “We’ll have our prospect camp in July and we’ll have a pretty good idea of where he is at that point. If we feel he’s getting stronger, that’s great and we’ll think about it at the end of next hockey season, and if not, then we’ll wait the four years.”
“He’s a kid with a lot of skill,” Prendergast says, adding that Nash’s style of play is similar to Calgary’s Craig Conroy. “He does everything really well. He’s somebody you can rely on all the time. He’s going to get his points. He’s going to be a plus player in most of the games he plays in.”
This upcoming season, Schafer has high hopes for the young forward. "We want him to continue to climb the ranks as far as being the leading scorer, not only on our team but in the league. We're looking for him to be more of a physical presence. We hope he develops into a Hobey Baker finalist (NCAA MVP Award)."
The Oilers couldn't agree more.