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As Nash matures, his star continues to ascend

by Todd Kimberley
How does Ken Hitchcock know Rick Nash has arrived?

Because he's making fewer departures.

"We're not chasing the guy off the ice because he happens to be out there against Jarome (Iginla), or the Sedins, or Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth," the Columbus Blue Jackets coach says of Ohio's top athlete on blades.

"Rick has reached a time where we're not afraid to match him up against the other team's best players," Hitchcock said. "He plays as one of the six guys killing penalties. When we're down two men, even though he's a winger, he's our second guy out there. And when it's at the end of the game, he's always one of our guys out there.

"And I think that's the compliment (that says) he's bought in. He's dependable, and he's willing to do all the hard, ugly, nasty things you have to do to be a top player against other top players."

Nash, the 25-year-old from Brampton, Ont., is considered a virtual lock, along with the likes of Iginla, Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf, to be named to Team Canada for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

He's also the captain, and undisputed offensive leader, of a burgeoning Blue Jackets team that made playoffs last spring for the first time in franchise history. And, with Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Jakub Voracek up front, Fedor Tyutin and Rostislav Klesla on the blue line, and sensational sophomore Steve Mason in net, Columbus is expected to be in the thick of the Central Division fight once again.

But it's pretty clear that as Nash goes, so go the Jackets. And the two-time, 40-goal scorer roared out of the gates this season with 10 points, including 3 goals, in his first six games as Columbus enjoyed its best start in franchise history (5-1-0).

The Jackets were cooled off on Tuesday night in Calgary by the Flames, 6-3, and continue their four-game road trip Thursday in Edmonton against the Oilers.

"As for getting to the 'next level,' I think it's just another year as captain, with a young group, trying to be a leader -- take the lead, and make sure everyone follows," said Nash, a four-time NHL all-star and former Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner.

"I don't think (Hitchcock) worries about goals and assists. The way he puts it, you get your offense from strong defensive play. It's just a matter of understanding it, and knowing that it works. It sometimes takes a while to do that, but if you're solid defensively, you'll get offensive chances."

Nash added another goal to his personal highlight reel in Tuesday's loss to Calgary. While the Jackets were two men down, Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf made an ill-advised pinch in the offensive zone, and was rather casual in collecting a Columbus clearing shot in the neutral zone.

Nash steamed up the middle of the ice, muscled Phaneuf off the puck, and made no mistake on the ensuing breakaway, tucking the puck around Miikka Kiprusoff's pad and scoring a rare 5-on-3 shorthanded goal.

Nash "has accepted playing in a very team-structured environment, and wanting to be the leader" within that setup, said Flames coach Brent Sutter. "He's committed, in the last year or so, to playing on both sides of the puck, and wanting to be put in all situations.

"He's dependable, and he's willing to do all the hard, ugly, nasty things you have to do to be a top player against other top players."
-- Ken Hitchcock on Rick Nash

"You have to be willing to sacrifice things personally for the betterment of the team, but at the end of the day, it's better for you too," adds Sutter. "He's become a complete player, and he has more respect, now, in the game than he's ever had."

As for the Jackets' top line, with 22-year-old Derick Brassard centering Nash and Huselius, there's still plenty of room for improvement, says Hitchcock.

"Rick has made some terrific individual plays that have given him the point totals he has right now, but the line's not going as well as we think it's going to go," says Hitchcock, now in his third full season behind the Columbus bench. "Derick is just starting to get up to speed now ... missing 55 games last year (with a shoulder injury) hurt him. And when he gets going, we think the line will go to another level. For us to be successful, it's going to have to be that way."

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