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Central: Maturity aiding Nash in becoming Columbus' go-to guy

by Larry Wigge

Columbus Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash is blossoming into a leader and dominant player.
Late last season, Rick Nash began talking about the 2007-08 season like players from Canada and the United States began talking about the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver shortly after they finished without winning the gold medal in 2006 in Torino, Italy.

For Nash, pride, passion, dedication and leadership all were mentioned prominently in the interview – all the intangibles coming out in his voice over something that still was months away. It was a clear commitment that he wanted to be a dominant leader.

And that’s something that normally doesn’t happen overnight. The intangible reality in this story is that Nash not only is playing in all of the important situations for the Blue Jackets – power plays, last minutes of each period, head-up against the best players on the other team – but he is a more well-rounded player.

The real bottom line for the Brampton, Ontario, native? It’s that he has Columbus in the thick of playoff contention in the Western Conference.

I’ll never forget during a Canadian Olympic camp in 2005 hearing Phoenix Coyotes winger Shane Doan say this of Rick: "We were sitting on the bench, just laughing at how good he is. It's fun watching him play, watching him develop. Everyone is seeing how dominating he is."

And now, the evolution of this man-child into a leader.

"It’s no surprise," Doan added recently. "When you have a player with that kind of will and that kind of skill, it’s just natural for him to lead a team and pull other players along with him."

Captain material? It’s still blossoming in this young body.

"You look at the leaders like a Steve Yzerman or Mark Messier and want to be on the ice when a game is on the line like they were. You want to make the difference for your team," Nash said. "Look at how the great athletes sparkle when the game is on the line. They don’t look at the moment for themselves. They look at the moment and how they can make everyone around them better. That’s what I want."

Coach Ken Hitchcock has seen the evolution of great potential into dominant team player when he was behind the bench in Dallas with center Mike Modano. There, he prodded, pumped up and motivated Modano into a Stanley Cup champion.

"It’s simple," Hitchcock said. "I expect him to be a dominant player. And he expects that from himself, too. Now, all he has to do is drag the rest of the team along with him.

"I see how much he worked in the off-season to be in the shape he’s in. I look at how motivated he is. I can see in his eyes how hard he wants to play off the team, to work at both ends of the rink. It’s clear: He wants to lead."

The Blue Jackets posted a 28-29-5 record under Hitchcock last season. The Hitchcock touch, plus a new voice at the top in the person of General Manager Scott Howson, spells a very competitive atmosphere in Columbus, and it showed as the Blue Jackets got off their best start ever at 8-2-2.

Though Hitchcock is stressing a tough, hard-to-play mentality, the Columbus mantra hasn’t changed. It’s still: As Rick Nash grows, so grow the Blue Jackets.

At 23, Nash is not too far removed from the boy who played for fun on the pond behind his parents' home in Brampton. He's still like the boy next door, only wrapped up in a 6-foot-4, 215-pound body, with a home of his own in Columbus and a multi-million dollar annual salary.

"It’s simple. I expect him to be a dominant player. And he expects that from himself, too. Now, all he has to do is drag the rest of the team along with him."

-- Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach Ken Hitchcock on Rick Nash

Nash will tell you that when Hitchcock replaced Gerard Gallant as coach one year ago, he challenged the big winger to play at a much higher level – the same kind of level that the great players perform at. His minutes increased from 14 early last season to the just over 20 a night he plays now.

"The confidence really came to a head for me when I went to the All-Star Game – even though my numbers might not have been where I wanted them," Nash recalled. "It was funny, but I looked around the locker room and at all of the stars at the skills competition and during the game and I felt like I belonged there. It was kind of like a boost in confidence for me.

"You don’t get to the level that I achieved and then just pat yourself on the back and stop. You want that kind of good pressure. There are a lot of young players who learned from their early experience at this level that they can’t just do it in spurts. You see them do it every shift, every game. That’s the kind of consistency I want for myself ... and my team."

Truth is, most young players, no matter how good they are, hit a wall at some point. It’s part of the growing pains and growth spurts youngsters usually face when there are so many expectations. It happened to Nash last season, even though his final stats of 27 goals and 30 assists look pretty good.

"To me, you think beyond the personal statistics," Nash said. "I want to be a leader for the Columbus Blue Jackets ... and it's hard to do that when the streaks you have include, like, three wins and are followed by five losses."

Consistency is the biggest obstacle for a young player. But Nash began to overcome that obstacle last season. And now, he’s doing more than just talking about being a leader this season.

Around the Central Division -- Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, along with a lot of other officials around the NHL, have talked about the improvement in the division from top to bottom. Last season, St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago all were under .500 – a combined 21 games under .500, in fact. This season, Detroit, Columbus, Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville were all .500 or better and a combined 40-25-3 entering games of Nov. 7. The Wings found out first-hand just how tough the division has become in the first of nine consecutive games within the division, when it took shootout goals by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to post a 3-2 victory over Nashville Nov. 7. In that game, Zetterberg also had an assist to set a franchise record with points in 15 consecutive games to start the season, erasing a record set by Norm Ullman at the start of the 1960-61 season. ... Remember when Babcock set his lines for the season opener and Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom were not together in an attempt by the coach to spread the wealth? It also was a chance to give other teammates an opportunity to grow with the talents of a Datsyuk or Zetterberg. The plan changed in the first week of the season, though, when Johan Franzen went out with an injury and Datsyuk and Zetterberg were back together again. But the Wings have proven they aren’t just a one-line team. With Franzen back, he’s joined up with Valtteri Filppula and Mikael Samuelsson, and the threesome has been very productive of late. Plus, Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler produced power-play goals in the 3-2 win against Nashville, showing even more scoring depth on theWings. ... Dominik Hasek returned to the goal crease from his hip irritation for a game against Columbus Nov. 9, putting Chris Osgood, who has an 8-0 record, on the bench. Must be nice to have that kind of depth, eh? ... Team defense and discipline, that has been the mantra on which the Columbus Blue Jackets rolled to an 8-3-2 start – the best in team history. But when Chicago connected for goals by Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith less than four minutes apart in the third period of a 5-2 win on Nov. 7, it was the fourth time in 14 games the young Jackets had surrendered a third-period lead and lost (Columbus previously had lost in regulation to Minnesota Oct. 6 and lost in shootouts Oct. 13 and Nov. 1,to Dallas and Anaheim, respectively). ... Pascal Leclaire became the first NHL goaltender to post five shutouts in his first nine games of a new season since Boston rookie Frankie Brimsek had five shutouts in nine games and six in 10 at the start of the 1938-39 season. ... In a season in which we seem to be talking about more and more goalies who started the season as backups and have made some headlines – Martin Gerber behind Ray Emery in Ottawa, Chris Osgood behind Dominik Hasek in Detroit, Dan Ellis behind Chris Mason in Nashville – Chicago could be the next venue to watch for a goaltending change. Patrick Lalime ran his record to 3-1 with the comeback victory over Columbus Nov. 7. The Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, is 5-6. ... Chicago has rushed to a 4-2 record on the road (they are 4-5 at home) thanks in large part to the fact that the Hawks have been the NHL's best penalty-killing team on the road. Never was that more evident than in a third-period, 3-2, comeback victory at St. Louis Nov. 3, when Patrick Sharp contributed a pair of short-handed goals in the win. It was the first time a Chicago player had two short-handed goals in a game since Steve Sullivan did it Jan. 26, 2001, at Colorado. ... Jonathan Toews’ 10-game point streak at the start of his NHL career was snapped in St. Louis (it fell four games short of the NHL record set by Boston’s Dimitri Kvartalnov in 1992), but the Winnipeg native got right back on the mark with three points in his next two games. Opponents are finding out that Toews’ size, strength and skill are a tough combination to stop. ... Chicago coach Denis Savard keeps encouraging his young defense to get involved in the offense to help his Martin Havlat-less forward lines be more productive. That win over Columbus must have been particularly impressive for Savard, seeing James Wisniewski net his fourth goal of the season and Seabrook and Keith each record his second goal of 2007-08. For the record, Blackhawks’ defenseman had 10 goals and 18 assists in their first 15 games. ... Things haven’t been going their way for the St. Louis Blues offense. In fact, coach Andy Murray broke up the team’s successful No. 1 line of Keith Tkachuk centering Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes, which had accounted for 51 percent of the team’s points. For a game in Chicago Nov. 9, Murray tried something different, inserting Jay McClement between Kariya and Boyes while putting Tkachuk on a line with Lee Stempniak and Jamal Mayers. The switch was in part a way to get Stempniak going. The Dartmouth graduate, who had a team-leading 27 goals last season, had just one this season and none in his last 10 games. ... Line changes also were the rule in Nashville after the Predators were shut out in back-to-back games and then began a five-game trip with a 5-1 loss at Calgary on Oct. 30. At that point, coach Barry Trotz put Alexander Radulov on the team’s No. 1 line with David Legwand and moved Martin Erat alongside Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont. Both lines showed life as the Preds won in Vancouver, Edmonton and Chicago and got a point in a shootout loss at Detroit, outscoring opponents 14-5, with Legwand and Arnott contributing three goals and three assists apiece, Erat two goals and three assists, and Dumont one goal and three assists. ... Trotz still is hoping erstwhile No. 1 goalie Chris Mason catches fire. He backstopped the win at Chicago to end a personal seven-game losing streak and then stopped 43 of 45 Red Wings shots in the shootout loss.

The week ahead -- It’s all Central Division all the time again this week, with the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks facing one another twice – Nov. 10 at Chicago and two days later at Columbus – for the first time this season. Last season, the teams split the series, 4-4. Patrick Sharp led both teams with five goals in the eight games. ... Chicago, which won only once in eight tries against Detroit last season, will face the Red Wings for the third time already this season Nov. 11. Chicago has both wins this season, with Robert Lang playing a big role both times against his former Detroit teammates. Lang sent the Oct. 6 game into overtime with a late third-period goal before Patrick Kane decided it, 4-3, in a shootout. Then Lang set up one goal before netting the game-winner in the third period of a 3-2 win Oct. 12. ... Detroit plays St. Louis for the first time this season after the two teams split their eight-game series last season. Pavel Datsyuk had two game-winners for the Red Wings, but former Wing Manny Legace helped end Detroit’s dominance in recent years against the Blues with three of the four wins over the Red Wings. ... The Blackhawks, coming off the aforementioned 5-2 win over the Blue Jackets Nov. 7, visit Columbus Nov. 14 and then head to Nashville one night later. The Preds won that contest, after losing 5-2 at Chicago on Nov. 4 in Chris Mason’s only win this season. ... Columbus, which already has had shutout wins by Pascal Leclaire over the Blues at home Oct. 25 and Nov. 4, both by 3-0 scores, travels to St. Louis for the first time this season on Nov. 16.


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