There are enough good reasons for Riley Nash to believe he’ll be the Carolina Hurricanes’ third-line center this season.
He played 73 games for the Canes last season, usually centering the third line. Late in the season, with Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm on the wings, Nash’s line was consistently productive.
Nash is a good skater and a good athlete. At 25, he’s rounding into a solid NHL player.
But the Canes have a new coach, Bill Peters, and an abundance of centers, including a kid from Sweden who is coming on fast. When preseason training camp ends, someone is going to be disappointed.
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“There’s a lot of players who are fighting for spots and guys who want the jobs,” Nash said Saturday. “This is a camp I need to come into and work as hard as possible and try to remain there and get better every day.
“Although I thought I finished strong at the end of last season, I need to take that next step and become more relied-upon this year. This is the NHL. Every year there’s a new wave of guys coming at you, so you have to be ready to go.”
When Peters and his staff divided the 51-man roster into two groups for camp, Eric Staal was placed at center with Skinner and Lindholm. Nash has had Nathan Gerbe and Zach Boychuk as his wingers the first two days of practice and in the scrimmages.
That will change Sunday as the Canes host the Columbus Blue Jackets in their first preseason exhibition game, which has a 1:30 p.m. start at PNC Arena. Staal, who had surgery for a core-muscle injury during the summer, will sit out the game as a precautionary measure and Nash will center Skinner and Lindholm.
Peters has said he wants three scoring lines and is expecting an improved Nash on the third line. The Canes signed free-agent center Jay McClement in the offseason, and Swedish center Victor Rask has made a quick, favorable impression on Peters.
Rask, 21, was a second-round draft pick in 2011 who played his first full professional season in 2013-2014 for the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. He finished with 16 goals and 23 assists in 76 games, with some inconsistencies in his game, and has yet to make his NHL debut.
But Rask showed up in a big way in the recent prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He had four goals and four assists in four games for Carolina, then continued that strong play in the Canes’ training camp.
Peters praised Rask after the first practice Friday. Peters did it again Saturday, saying, “Every time I see him he’s been good. He’s one of those smart Swedes and a reliable two-way player with skill.”
Such comments from the coach haven’t been lost on Nash, a former first-round draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers who played collegiately at Cornell.
“He’s a young guy. He’s a really skilled player, a good player,” Nash said of Rask. “You definitely hear it but at the same time you have to go about your business. Just work hard and see where the chips fall.”
Nash now has 110 games of NHL experience. He had 10 goals -- including three game-winners – and 14 assists, and Peters has referred to him as the third-line center.
“I don’t know who his wingers will be but that line needs to generate offense,” Peters said.
But Nash first has to nail down the position. Asked Saturday if he felt “comfortable” about his situation, given the number of games he played last season, Nash smiled.
“I’m comfortable but at the same time there’s a lot of guys here looking for spots,” he said.