COLUMBUS, Ohio - The question for days among Columbus Blue Jackets fans was where former All-Star forward and franchise icon Rick Nash might go in a trade they didn't want to happen.
Now that the NHL Trade Deadline has passed and Nash's trade request hasn't been fulfilled, a different question is being asked.
Will he stay?
It's always a risky proposition when a player -- even a star like Nash -- publicly approves that his team can trade him.
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said he believes Nash, the best player in the Blue Jackets' relatively short history, can remain in Columbus for the long term if the situation dictates.
As Howson explained Monday, "He's our captain, he's been a terrific player here, an elite player in the League, and we're happy to have him on our team."
Yet Howson said he will aggressively continue to pursue a trade for Nash, who admittedly surprised -- perhaps shocked would be a better word -- the one and only franchise he has played for by quietly asking to be dealt earlier this month.
Nash is under contract through the 2017-18 season. But it appears he has tired of the losing that has enveloped the Blue Jackets. He asked about a month ago to be dealt.
"We don't have to trade Rick Nash. We're not compelled to trade Rick Nash," Howson said. "We're going to do what's best for our team, and if we can do what's best for our team and accommodate Rick's wishes, that's what we're going to do."
While Howson acknowledged the return price for Nash must be huge, he said he believes more clubs will be in the trade mix this summer than were involved at the Trade Deadline. Howson anticipates that salary-cap restraints won't be as tight and general managers won't be worried about disrupting team chemistry as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach.
Until then, the previously amicable relationship between Nash and the Blue Jackets fans is certain to be tested.
For years, Nash always professed great loyalty to Columbus, to being committed to his role of franchise cornerstone. This trade request changes all of that.
"It took us a while to digest it," Howson said. "It took us a while to think about it and discuss it internally. Again, we're going to do what's best for our team, to improve our team. I have no questions about Rick's character or the quality of person he is or the commitment he'll give us over the next six weeks."
Howson did not mention next season or the season beyond as part of the comment.
Howson was counseled Monday by Craig Patrick, the former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager who pulled off some of the biggest Trade Deadline deals in the NHL's history. In 1991, for example, Patrick riled up Penguins fans by trading one of the NHL's leading scorers, John Cullen, to the Hartford Whalers.
Initially, Penguins fans weren't all that excited by a deal that brought forward Ron Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson to Pittsburgh. Within months, however, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in great part because of the deal and, a season later, they won another.
But these 2011-12 Blue Jackets are far removed from those Penguins. Columbus trails every other team in the NHL standings by at least 11 points. It has had only one winning season and has never won a playoff round.
The Blue Jackets have a long road to go to get better and, even if Howson is convinced they are farther along that road now that they've added defenseman Jack Johnson and draft picks, Nash apparently prefers to travel a different path in a different city.
"The moves we've made have cleared salary-cap space and given us great flexibility," Howson said. "We're in a stronger position today to move the club forward."
Howson believes the franchise will be able to recruit more high-end players necessary to continue the rebuilding process.
"We feel we have a lot to offer here in Columbus," Howson said. "The first thing we have to do, quite frankly, here in Columbus is to have a winning culture to attract free agents."
But getting better requires better players, and it takes time to rebuild with prospects, drafts and through player development methods.
Howson wouldn't disclose how close he came to pulling off a deal, saying, "It doesn't matter how close we were. It just didn't happen. We had significant discussions but it just didn't happen."
Nash's teammates are glad he's staying, and why wouldn't they?
Nash has nearly twice as many goals (21) as anyone else on the team, and he still commands total attention from opponents. On Sunday, Nash turned a neutral-zone mistake by the Pittsburgh Penguins into a shorthanded goal and a 1-0 lead that the Blue Jackets wound up giving away during a 4-2 loss.
"He's been a true professional, he's not going to let it (the trade talk) become a distraction," forward RJ Umberger said. "He handles his business and works hard. He makes it clear to us that he's still playing for us and leading us. He's our leader."
Howson said Nash is committed to playing as hard as he can and as well as he can for as long as he remains in Columbus, if only because it improves his trade prospects if he does.
"Rick's a quality person. I talked to him after 3 o'clock and explained our position," Howson said. "He's a great person and he's understands. "
Nash will learn during the next six weeks if his fans do, too.