The captain for the better part of the past five seasons and a member of the organization since being drafted first in 2002, Nash was the face of the young franchise for nearly a decade. He holds team records for games (674), goals (289) and assists (258).
That's all over now, and the Blue Jackets are again left searching for an identity. After six months of rumors dating to the trade deadline, general manager Scott Howson sent Nash, prospect Steven Delisle and a conditional third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft to the New York Rangers on July 23 in exchange for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, defenseman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick in 2013.
"This trade brings us the right balance we were seeking in any trade for Rick: a balance between helping the team now and helping the team in the future," Howson told the Columbus Dispatch.
In his response to criticism of the return for Nash, Howson has reiterated that the organization was building for the future. After finishing with 65 points and a minus-60 goal differential in 2011-12, it's no surprise Howson wants to look forward.
In addition to Nash, multiple offseason roster moves mean the Columbus of 2012-13 will look far different from seasons past. The Blue Jackets started in the crease, acquiring young and promising Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for three picks on draft day.
Howson said Bobrovsky, who was 42-23-10 in two seasons with the Flyers, will battle incumbent Steve Mason for the No. 1 spot.
"We don't have a No. 1," Howson said. "We will be more than happy to go to training camp -- if that's all we do -- then those two will fight it out to see who gets the most playing time, and I think that's a great competitive situation for our hockey team."
Columbus also grabbed Ryan Murray, a defenseman experts agree was the most NHL-ready prospect at the position in this class, with the second pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. Unfortunately, the Jackets will play the season without the highly regarded blueliner. Murray needed surgery after he suffered a torn labrum while playing with the Everett Silvertips (Western Hockey League) on Nov. 16, an injury that's expected to take six months to heal.
In addition to Erixon, the Jackets re-signed leading blueline scorer Nikita Nikitin to a two-year deal and added veteran Adrian Aucoin on a one-year contract. Aucoin is likely to serve in a mentor role for Columbus' stable of up-and-coming rearguards.
"(Defense) is certainly the strongest part of our team, and I think it's crucial to win in the NHL from the back end out," Howson said on draft day. "We added a goalie today, so hopefully we're getting a little sturdier in the defensive zone and in defending. Now we're going to have to address how we score."
Goals were a problem all season for Columbus. The Jackets finished 26th in the League with 2.42 goals per game, and losing Nash -- in addition to Jeff Carter's trade to the Los Angeles Kings at the deadline -- means Columbus will start the season with no 30-goal scorers on its roster.
Howson spent the summer replacing those prolific scorers with grinding forwards who possess potential for breakout years. He shipped Marc Methot to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Nick Foligno, who had 15 goals and 32 assists playing mostly on the third line in 2011-12. He should see action in the top six in Columbus, as will Dubinsky and Anisimov – two-way forwards with size and skill who struggled to score last season.
The Jackets also signed Jonathan Audy-Marchessault to a three-year, entry-level deal. He was undrafted but scored 24 goals and 40 assists for the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League last season.
The major question mark remains one of leadership, as Nash's departure leaves the franchise without its captain. Jack Johnson, the dynamic defenseman who came over in the deal that sent Carter to the Kings, was a positive locker-room presence as rumors of the Nash trade swirled. Johnson then captained the U.S. team at the World Championships in Sweden.
Key defenseman James Wisniewski is also respected among teammates, and alternate captains R.J. Umberger and Vinny Prospal are candidates. But no matter who dons the "C" for the season opener, they'll lead a team that can only improve on its lackluster 2011-12 campaign.
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