TORONTO — When Riley Nash saw his phone light up, he knew a trade was coming.
The former Columbus Blue Jacket was out to lunch with his wife and newborn in early April when Blue Jackets’ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen's number appeared. Nash was newly injured, set to be sidelined four to six weeks by a knee sprain, but Kekalainen confirmed Nash was on the move to Toronto in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2021.
Thanks to his injury, the 32-year-old centre’s Leafs debut has had to wait until Game 1 of Toronto's first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
It’s been another strange chapter in a strange season, but Nash is looking forward to what’s next.
“We were a little bit stunned at first [by the trade],” Nash told reporters on Monday. “It's definitely unique [being hurt] at the same time, and not something I've been through before. But I’m very excited, and once you let it set in, and you realize that you're [with] a franchise like Toronto and the success they've had and the buildup they've had in recent years, you turn into a little kid again about the excitement of what lies ahead.”
It was a long road for Nash just to get involved with his new organization. After coming up to Toronto from Columbus, Nash quarantined for seven days, and then the Leafs left on a 10-day road trip out west.
When the team returned, Nash had to quarantine again as a precaution due to a COVID-19 outbreak with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
All told, it took over three weeks for Nash to even meet most of his teammates. But even under those circumstances, the Leafs worked hard to make him feel at home. And Nash found ways to make use of the extra downtime.
“[Everyone] has really gone above and beyond,” he said. “It's kind of blown my mind how seamless everything runs here. I'm just trying to get acclimated as fast as possible. Since I've been injured I've been able to watch some games, see their style of play, see the little differences from what our system was in Columbus, and just try and get my mindset and my thinking on the same page as what they're thinking about in their system.”
Toronto is the fourth team Nash has played for in his 10-year career, so he does have some experience in picking up new things. He’s just never had to start out with a team in the postseason.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has Nash slotted onto the Leafs’ third line, centering Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Nash has been a defensive specialist throughout his career, acting as a shutdown forward while posting 172 points in 578 games. Keefe is counting on that veteran experience to carry Nash through any growing pains, and Nash admits leaning on his linemates has been key to navigating the nuances of Toronto’s structure.
“In Columbus, we did a lot of dump and chase and it seems like [the Leafs] make a lot more possession plays,” he said. “Whether it be changing sides through the neutral zone or trying to find lanes. It's definitely going to be a little bit weird and not as natural to begin. Just relying on [my linemates] now and asking them [questions] and getting their feedback and just kind of adapting on the fly.”
While Nash is prepared to help the Leafs on their next playoff run, he has also played a role in ousting Toronto from the postseason in recent years.
Back in 2017-18, Nash was part of the Boston Bruins club that defeated the Leafs in Game 7 of their first-round series. And then last summer, Nash and the Blue Jackets sent Toronto packing in a five-game qualifying-round series.
Nash doesn’t think the Leafs were able to show their best in the NHL’s playoff tournament though, and felt they were building towards something better.
“The bounces can go one way or the other, and you can't quite establish what you want [in a shortened round] like in a full seven-game series,” Nash said of the Leafs' bubble loss.
“I did definitely notice that they worked a lot harder compete-wise [than in 2017-18]. I thought their top guys were pretty darn good last year. I think last year is just a really unique case and this year seems like the team's firing on all cylinders and knows where their game is at instead of trying to find it in a quick five-game series.”
Now it’s Nash trying to tap into his best game before an important opening-round series against Montreal. One constant Nash has relished having these last couple months is Nick Foligno, who was traded from Columbus to Toronto right after Nash.
The two became close while playing for the Blue Jackets, and when Nash heard rumours Foligno might be on the move as well, he hoped Toronto would reel him in.
That turned out to be the case, and together they’ll get back to chasing an elusive Stanley Cup title.
“[We thought] it would be the greatest thing if we got to end up [in the same place] and fortunately, we did,” Nash said. “It’s unique to look at the last year and where we are and what our goals were at the start of this season with Columbus. It's the way things play out. This is the business of it, but we're not getting any younger, so having an opportunity like this, you don't want to let it slide. So it's fun to have a good friend like that along for the ride.”