Riley Nash’s odd road to Leafs debut culminates in Game 1 of playoffs

Riley Nash talks about learning the Toronto Maple Leafs’ style of play and making his debut for the team in playoffs.

TORONTO — Riley Nash was a pending free agent with a sprained knee and a newborn son. He didn’t have much time to worry about last month’s NHL trade deadline, nor any inclination the Columbus Blue Jackets would be in a position to ship him out of town.

“I really didn’t expect it at that point,” Nash said of the mid-lunch phone call he received from Jarmo Kekäläinen on April 9 to inform him of the trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nash’s recovery timeline spanned the remainder of the regular season and it hadn’t dawned on him that a contender might see that as an appealing set of circumstances rather than a disincentive to part with assets for him.

Were it not for his injury, it’s hard to imagine the Maple Leafs could have made the money work, but Nash wound up being a perfect fit for a cap-challenged team able to stash the remainder of his $2.75-million contract on long-term injured reserve until the start of the playoffs.

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He amounted to a nearly “free” player for an organization with financial might. The Leafs parted with $687,500 in salary and a 2022 sixth-round pick — assuming Nash plays in at least 25 per cent of their playoff games, otherwise it becomes a seventh — and never had to fit him under the salary-cap ceiling for even a day.

But he’ll be jumping directly into Game 1 of their series against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, essentially bumping Pierre Engvall from the lineup.

Consider it about the strangest set of circumstances you could find to debut with a new team. Especially since the 32-year-old centre was on the ice when Columbus ended the Leafs’ season in the bubble last August and stole the puck that led to Brad Marchand’s empty-net goal to quell Toronto’s last-gasp attempt at a Game 7 comeback in 2018.

There’s no doubt that the way Nash performed as an opponent in those two series played a role in the Leafs front office wanting to acquire him. And once the shocking news of the trade wore off, those experiences were why he got so excited.

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From his perspective in the trenches, he doesn’t see a lot in common with the young Leafs team that faced the Boston Bruins to the one now wearing the North Division crown.

“I did definitely notice from the series with Boston to last year, is they were a lot harder compete-wise,” said Nash. “I thought their top guys were pretty darn good last year. We kind of found a way to get it done, but I thought their top guys were really good. … I think last year was just a really unique case and this year it seems like the team is firing on almost all cylinders and has that momentum going into the playoffs and knows where their game’s at, instead of trying to find it in a quick five-game series.”

Ask around the league and Nash is still seen as a quality checking-line forward and penalty-killer. Not a lot happens when he’s on the ice, which can be extremely valuable as games tighten up.

No goals were scored by either team in the 63 minutes he played at even strength against the Leafs in the bubble last summer.

Sheldon Keefe isn’t worried about offence with the significant skill advantage his team holds over the Canadiens, but he is looking forward to the different look Nash brings to the bottom-six. He’ll start on a line with Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev despite never previously pulling on a Leafs sweater.

“We’re going to get him involved right away and just rely upon the fact that he’s a very smart player, a very experienced guy in the NHL and the playoffs, in particular,” said Keefe. “And trust that he’s going to be able to fit right in.”

There’s a real ‘if you can’t beat’em, join’em’ vibe developing here.

Zach Hyman, who has been rehabbing his own knee sprain alongside Nash, remembers how tough it was to establish an offensive attack when facing him in the past. Nick Foligno, a former Blue Jackets teammate now wearing the blue and white, believes Columbus’s 2019 playoff run got derailed when Nash was knocked out of a second-round series.

“I always say that he’s a sneaky hockey player,” said Foligno. “Somehow he finds ways to get through, get open ice. He does the subtle things in the game, which I think if you’re a real watchful person of the game you appreciate about him. He does the little things that allow you to win and he’s got great skill. He sees the ice so well and reads plays so well and I’ve really come to appreciate his game.”

Getting up to speed under these conditions would be a challenge for any player. Nash didn’t even meet most of his new teammates until early May because they were on a road trip when he got out of quarantine and now he’s jumping directly into the fire with them.

Still, there’s a familiar face to be found in Foligno and his own experience as an opponent who played a role in recent Leafs heartbreaks.

“This is kind of the way things play out, this is the business of it,” said Nash. “We’re not getting any younger, so getting an opportunity like this you don’t want to let it slide.”

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