Rick Nash: I'm a believer
If you're looking for someone to root for, look no further than Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since returning from injury, Nash is proving that he may be the single most important player to his team in the NHL. He has a presence that transcends his totals, which are prodigious -- especially when it comes to putting the puck in the net.
Of course, President and General Manager Doug MacLean recognized Nash's importance when he hurried to ink Nash to a five-year deal worth $27 million dollars this past August. But instead of haste making waste, there is immediate reward in MacLean's rush. In a backhanded way, contrasting the struggles of the Blue Jackets in the first half without Nash to their excellent play with him in the lineup, MacLean's view is proving both prescient and prudent.
For that, owner John McConnell has justly awarded MacLean a new long-term deal. Both have staked their hockey fortunes on Nash and in watching his rapid progression from a highly touted 18-year-old prospect to a 21-year-old producer, it is easy to understand why. The kid makes plays, scores big goals and makes his entire team better. He is a born "go-to-guy" -- a rare trait with value beyond dollars.
And while none of this is revelatory -- after all, as the first pick overall in the 2002 Entry Draft, pundits far and wide predicted as much -- every time I see Nash play, I feel he is better than the last time and better than even those lofty expectations. Call it the "wow" factor. Early in his first season, he looked coltish at times -- game but unsure -- but that certain something was detectable. By the end of the season, I was impressed with how much more fluid his game was and how effective he was in the high traffic areas around the net.
|Rick Nash is a born "go-to-guy" -- a rare trait with value beyond dollars.|
Nice progression, but what I witnessed at the 2004 All-Star Game in Minnesota was the first time I experienced Nash's ability to dominate in the open ice. His speed and puck handling were better than I had remembered. Maybe it was the all-star format that aided him. Not entirely. The rest of that 2003-04 season, it became obvious that Nash was effective low in the offensive zone as well as able to create off the rush -- with or without the puck. That dual dimension propelled him to tie for the NHL's goal scoring title with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Now, having seen Nash numerous times since his return, there is an added maturity to his game. He is strong off the wing, with the new standard on obstruction making Nash virtually impossible to stop. The power play is clicking with Nash as an option, yet 10 of his 14 goals have been at even strength -- proof that he is becoming more of a factor in tougher situations. After 25 games, Nash might just be rounding into form now. He doesn't quite look 100 percent healthy, yet Nash draws you in every time he hits the ice. In other words -- we've already seen it before with Nash in his young career -- there is an untapped upside lurking just below the surface that will reveal itself and amaze in light of his production since returning to the lineup.
Are there other reasons for MacLean's CBJ's recent renaissance? Yes. Are there other key contributors? Absolutely, with youngsters like Rusty Klesla -- himself appearing in only 25 games due to early season injuries -- Nik Zherdev and solid veterans like Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov as core players.
But the reason to believe in Columbus is Rick Nash.