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New role gives Nash a big chance to make an impact

The Blue Jackets' all-time leading scorer now leads the player development charge in the organization

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It didn't take Rick Nash very long to prove he could handle the first act of his hockey life. 

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, Nash made the Blue Jackets' roster as an 18-year-old rookie the following season and needed less than half a game to score his first NHL goal. 

He didn't slow down from there, setting franchise records for goals (289), assists (258) and points (547) in his nine-year Jackets career. 

But when he returned to Columbus after retirement and was hired to join the Jackets' front office as a special assistant to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in June 2019, it did take some time for Nash to find his niche. 

He spent the first two years of his second act in hockey learning everything he could about running a team, and earlier this month, the Blue Jackets announced a specific area of focus for Nash, as he has been named the franchise's director of player development.  

"I think it was fun to jump into the organization and learn the pro scouting, learn the amateur scouting, watch how they do free agency, watch how we do the trade deadline, watch the draft, and then find a niche inside hockey ops that I think I can bring some value to," Nash said.  

"I think it's going to be a challenge, but I jumped all over it and I'm excited to take the challenge." 

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For Kekalainen, it's a natural progression for the CBJ legend, who has checked any ego at the door and been a sponge as he's learned the ropes the past few years. 

"The biggest thing for me has been that even with a player of his stature, he has been very willing to learn and work," Kekalainen said of Nash. "Obviously we get a wealth of knowledge with his career and what he's been through in his NHL career but also his international career and all those things.  

"We get a lot of knowledge and we respect that and we appreciate it, but at the same time he's been very open-minded as far as learning a different side of hockey now and is constantly trying to get better every day and wants the Blue Jackets to be better every single day. 

"I think it is a great role for him to step into if he can share that knowledge and experience with the players and oversee the development side, which is very, very important for us. I think it is the perfect next step for him." 

So, the next obvious question -- what will this new role entail for Nash? It'll be a little bit of everything, starting of course with helping bring along the on-ice play of the players the Jackets draft.  

That's always important but takes on a new urgency in a flat salary cap world in which the league continues to get younger and younger. And with the Blue Jackets holding nine picks in July's upcoming draft, including three first-rounders, an influx of young talent soon will be flooding the organization. 

On top of that, Nash sees a key part of his job as being able to relate to those young players. Having just turned 37 and being only a few years removed from the league, Nash feels he can still relate to those playing the game both on and off the ice. Selling Columbus and continuing to try to build a team from the ground up will also be part of the deal. 

"Obviously the draft is such a big deal, and then once you draft these kids, what is the best avenue to get them to being a professional or being a Blue Jacket?" he said. "That's how I see the job, is what kind of tools and experiences and help can I give these kids along with our team that we have in development?" 

Nash, of course, will far from go it alone. The Blue Jackets retain director of player personnel Chris Clark -- Nash and Clark have shared an office the past two years and already had countless conversations about player development in that time -- as well as European development coach Jarkko Ruutu (who works with the team's overseas draft picks) and development coach Jared Boll, who has taken more of an on-ice presence at CBJ practices in recent years. 

In addition, the Blue Jackets also announced the hiring of former players Mark Letestu and Derek Dorsett as development coaches at the same time as Nash's promotion. That was no mistake, it seems, as Nash pushed to have some more voices with different experiences to be part of his team. 

"I wanted to support myself with a guy like Derek Dorsett that didn't get drafted in the WHL and got drafted (in the NHL), had to work his way up through the system, to make sure I have that experience," Nash said. "The same with Mark. I want guys that have played in the NHL, and I can pick Clarky's brain at the same time. 

"I'm not going to have all the answers for kids that take different avenues because I didn't experience it, so I wanted to make sure I could hire my weaknesses and have someone that has experience from that angle." 

Video: Rick Nash Ceremonial Puck Drop

Kekalainen sees it as an ideal situation, one where the Jackets will have a unique blend of voices who have experienced just about all there is as players. That's important in at a time where a one-size-fits-all approach has gone by the wayside, especially as the Blue Jackets continue to draft players from all around the world and a new breed of athlete has grown up not just wanting to be coached but craving a personal touch as well. 

"They want to know the organization cares about them and that they're a part of it," Nash said. "We can add a lot of value because we're so fresh out of it, but at the same time, it's understanding that it's their career, it's their pathway, it's their roadmap. They need to know that we're here to support them and help them get to that professional level." 

As Blue Jackets alumni push to have a more prominent role, it can only help to have the best Blue Jacket of them all in such a prominent role in the organization. 

But it's the path Nash has taken that has impressed the most as he has found a way to have an impact in what he calls the CBJ "family." 

"I've loved it," Nash said of his front-office work thus far. "I'm so grateful to this management team, to Jarmo and (former assistant general manager) Bill Zito, who was a huge help when I first came here. Sometimes, once you retire, it's tough to get back into the game, and this organization along with (president) Mike (Priest) and the ownership and the McConnell family, they opened their arms and allowed me to come back in and allowed me to find my way in an avenue I enjoy and I like." 

"He's in it for the right reasons," Kekalainen added of Nash. "I give him all the credit in the world that he's approaching it the right way where he loves the game, he loves the Blue Jackets, and he wants to make a difference and be part of it." 

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