The Blue Jackets signed an "R. Nash" on the first day of free agency, but it's not the one you might assume when first seeing that abbreviation.
Rather than Rick Nash, a free-agent forward and former No. 1 overall pick by Columbus in 2002, the Jackets signed his former Boston Bruins teammate Sunday afternoon, center Riley Nash - landing the two-way center with a three-year contract worth an average annual value (AAV) of $2.75 million.
Nash, the center, is 29 and has played seven seasons in the NHL. He's coming off a career-year offensively with the Bruins, after signing with them as a free agent in 2016.
"It's going to be great to add a center, a right-handed center that we don't have, and I think we got it done with a contract that we like - both the value and the term," said Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets' general manager. "You need the right-handed center for that side of the ice, for the face-offs. It's really hard to go against a right-handed center, on his strong side, with a left-handed guy who's on his weak side. So, when you look at his stats, at his face-offs, you can see a real clear correlation."
Where Nash slots into the lineup won't be figured out until training camp in September, when coach John Tortorella will assess the situation down the middle of the ice. He'll have some options, though, when it comes to picking his centers.
Alexander Wennberg and Pierre-Luc Dubois are expected to fill the top two center roles, while the third and fourth line spots will be chosen from a pool that now includes Nash, Brandon Dubinsky, Lukas Sedlak and possibly even rookie Vitaly Abramov - who made a successful switch to center last season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
Nash also proved in Boston last season that he can handle centering a top-six line, as well, after playing on the Bruins' top line while Patrice Bergeron was injured. Nash played in the middle of that line and flourished. He set career-highs in goals (15), assists (26), points (41), plus/minus rating (plus-14) and shooting percentage (13.3 percent).
He doesn't think those numbers were an anomaly.
"I think that's right in my range," said Nash, who's from Kamloops, B.C. "Obviously, the breaks either go your way or not go your way in hockey. I try to track scoring chances and some of the little things like that, and I think I'm a 10-to-15 goal scorer - maybe 20 if that opportunity presents itself. So, I don't think last year is out of the question. That's where I kind of see myself. I like to be responsible, but chipping in with 15 goals a year, that would be my expectation every year."
The Blue Jackets would gladly take that kind of output from him, especially if he proves to be as useful all over the lineup as he was for the Bruins this past season. He can center any of the four lines, averaged about a minute a game of shorthanded ice time, killing penalties, and even got some time on the power play occasionally.
Kekalainen made sure to point out, though, that 13 of Nash's goals and 38 of his 41 points were during even-strength action.
"I'm not so sure he's going to get 40 points every year in the league," Kekalainen said. "He might. He had to earn every point that he got last year. He's not old. He's 29-years old and he's shown that he can play up and down the lineup. It's not like he's not had any offensive production before, but he was mostly down the lineup in other years of his career. So, this year he got a chance to show that he could potentially play higher up the lineup and get good results as he was doing it."
Nash was the fourth player the Blue Jackets signed Sunday, but the only one with a guaranteed, one-way NHL contract. He also didn't find out about their interest in him until Sunday morning, hours before free agency officially began at Noon ET.
"It was a really quick thing that happened," said Nash, who was drafted 21st overall by the Hurricanes in 2007 at the draft held in Nationwide Arena. "You can talk to teams a week before the 'free-agency frenzy,' or whatever you want to call it, but we hadn't heard much from Columbus. So, it wasn't even on my radar. I got a call this morning and my agent said Columbus had come into it."
Ultimately, it was the right fit for both sides.
Nash told BlueJackets.com on Sunday he's excited to join a team looking to keep building toward a championship.
"You look at their team and what they did last year, and they're two wins away from putting the Stanley Cup champions out of the playoffs," he said. "You can't predict that they were going to be the Stanley Cup champion, obviously, but they were that close to ultimately achieving the goal. That was one of the things I wanted. I want to be part of a franchise that has been building in the right direction, and you see what Columbus has done in the last couple years. It's just a really solid franchise that hopefully I can add a little bit to that to maybe help us get over the hump next year."
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THREE NEW 'D'
The other three free-agent acquisitions were defensemen: Tommy Cross, 28; Adam Clendening, 25; and Dillon Simpson, 25.
All three will likely play in the American Hockey League with the Cleveland Monsters, but each has played at least some NHL games and will come to training camp looking to compete for the Jackets' sixth and seventh defense roles.
Clendening has the most NHL experience, playing for six previous NHL teams since making his debut in the league in 2014-15 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Cross played three games with the Bruins in 2015-16, plus one game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that season. Simpson, the son of former NHL forward Craig Simpson, also has three games of NHL experience for the Edmonton Oilers in 2016-17.
"Adam Clendening, Tommy Cross and Dillon Simpson will all compete for that six [or] seven spot in our lineup," Kekalainen said. "That's how much we think of them. There's lots of good years left in all of those guys, and we believe in them, our scouts like them and that's how we operate on signing guys and targeting guys."
Columbus didn't re-sign any of its unrestricted free agents, which included defensemen Jack Johnson, Ian Cole and Taylor Chorney plus forwards Matt Calvert, Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu.
Johnson signed a five-year contract with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins for $16.25 million ($3.25 million AAV), Vanek signed a one-year contract for $3 million with the Detroit Red Wings and both Cole and Calvert signed three-year deals with the Colorado Avalanche - Cole for $4.25 million AAV and Calvert for $2.8 million AAV.
Letestu and Chorney are still available.
Kekalainen said Cole and Calvert would've been welcomed back. Calvert, drafted by Columbus in 2008 (fifth round, No. 127) was the longest-tenured Blue Jackets player last season.
"We made it clear to Matt Calvert we like him and we talked to his agent before free agency, before he became a UFA, but I've said it many times - sometimes people will make a decision for their lives and their families, and they decide to move on and go somewhere else," Kekalainen said. "Matt Calvert is one I personally liked a lot because of his heart and character and courage, but he decided to move on and I respect that. I don't get upset about it. I wish he wanted to stay here. I wish he would still be a Blue Jacket, but I wish him nothing but the best and the best of luck, and I thanked him for everything, and I'm grateful that he was part of the organization for a long time. He's a great guy and he's a great family man, and I wish him nothing but the best."
Cole was also told the Jackets wanted him back, based off his performance and chemistry in the locker room following his arrival Feb. 26 in deal at the NHL Trade Deadline.
"When it comes to Ian Cole, we wanted to keep him," Kekalainen said. "We offered him a contract and he decided to go to Colorado. It's the same as with Matt Calvert. I have to respect his decision for his family and himself and wish him the best of luck. I know what he signed for, and we offered him a very fair contract, in our opinion, and he decided to go with Colorado. And that's it."
Nash did the opposite, in the late afternoon, giving the Blue Jackets a nice piece to the puzzle for next season and beyond.
"It gives us a guy who played penalty-killing regularly with a really good team, some power play, versatility, adds some center depth for the organization and a guy who can move up and down the lineup," Kekalainen said. "We're excited. This was one of the guys we'd targeted right from the start, so we're excited about it."