One word describes the Columbus Blue Jackets performance on the opening night of their 2007/08 NHL season – promising.
The win marked a career-best four-point night for forward Rick Nash. While the franchise’s cornerstone can’t realistically be expected to rack up multi-point games every night, his two-goal, two-assist effort against the Ducks was precisely the kind of dominating show that the Columbus brass and fan base want to see from their big left winger in the team’s quest to reach new heights in the Western Conference.
“It was a great game but it was only one,” says Nash. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
One game, yes, but maybe a sign of what’s to come from the team and its young star. At this point of his career, Nash has both the ability and perhaps more importantly, the desire to strap a team on his back and impose his will on a hockey game. He’s still just 23 but already into his fifth season as a pro after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft.
In addition, the Brampton, Ontario native is eagerly embracing a leadership role as one of the longest serving veterans on the Jackets. Nash says he has had some tremendous teachers within the Columbus room.
“I’ve learned from guys like Sergei, Modin and Foote,” he explained. “I think the biggest thing is how they handle themselves off of the ice. You follow that. They’ve been through championships, they’ve won gold medals in the Olympics, they know what it takes. You couldn’t pick better guys to model yourself after.
“Even though I’m still young, I feel like I’m a leader,” Nash added. “And I think Hitch wants to me to be a leader.”
Ken Hitchcock, renowned for having disciplined, defensively aware teams, knows exactly what he has in Nash.
“It’s real simple,” the head coach says, “I expect him to be a dominant player and he’s more than capable of it and he knows how to do it and he knows he can drag other people with him.
“I don’t look at numbers, I don’t look at points, I don’t look at anything other than effort and he’s in tremendous condition, he’s motivated. He understands how to play a two-way game; he understands how to play hard on both ends of the rink. He understands the impact he can have on everybody else.
“That’s what I expect.”
Hitchcock’s faith in Nash is translating into more opportunities on the ice. There’s no doubt about his offensive ability after posting 116 goals in his first four years, including an NHL-best 41 in the 2003-04 season, which garnered him a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy along with Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk.
Nash will always get plenty of ice time – he logged over 20 minutes a night in each of Columbus’ first two games this year. The difference is how those minutes are divvied up. Nash is a fixture on the Columbus power play unit but he’s also being called upon to help keep the puck out of his own end, even logging time as a penalty killer.
He says the presence of Hitchcock, who helped transform Mike Modano into one of the most well-rounded players in the NHL while in Dallas, has been influential.
“I’ve changed my game,” Nash says. “I’m playing in different situations and becoming more of a complete player. Before, I was just relied on to score goals. I think it’ll benefit me in the long run.”
Nash is not only evolving as a player, he’s also maturing physically. He’s nothing like the lanky teenager that debuted in Columbus five years ago and Nash understands he has to utilize his 6’4” frame to help his team win, usually around the opposition’s net.
“It’s definitely where you get a lot of goals, right down by the net on rebounds, deflections, things like that,” he says. “I’ve got to use my size to my advantage. When you’re down there, they can’t clutch and grab like they used to.”
Nash was unstoppable down low in the season opener. His second goal of the night against Anaheim was a perfect example of the lethal size/skill combo he brings to the table. He set up near the left post of Ducks goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and slid the puck home on the power play with a defender in his face.
It was much prettier than his first of the night, Columbus’ first game-winning goal of the 2007-08 campaign.
“It’s nice to get those kind of goals off of skates,” he says with a smile. “Hopefully the bounces go like that all season.”