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Nash aims to take his game to the next level

by Larry Wigge / NHL.com

You get a pretty clear picture of what’s going through Rick Nash’s mind when you see the tattoo of the shark on his left shoulder.

"I like the persona of a shark — dangerous, scary and deadly," Nash laughed.

After being the first overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft and having been favorably compared to the NHL’s best power forwards, Nash has become the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets. And why not?

Rick Nash has become one of the top power forwards in the NHL and is now turning his attention to becoming a leader for the Columbus Blue Jackets
"I watch guys like Keith Tkachuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla as much as I can to get an idea of how to best play my role," Nash said.

Nash went from 17 goals as a rookie to tying for the league lead with 41 in his second NHL season. He had 31 goals in 2005-06 despite being limited 54 games by injuries.

Nash was catching the attention of others around the NHL. “We were sitting on the bench, just laughing at how good he is," Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said, recalling a moment at Team Canada’s 2006 Olympic training camp. "It's fun watching him play, watching him develop. Everyone is seeing how he is so dominating."

The truth is that 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 such high expectations — and 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 you might put up," 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 often a young player’s bugaboo. But Nash, now 23, showed down the stretch that he was becoming more mentally tough.

Though Nash has tasted the bad aspects — losses, frustration and injuries — at points in each of his first four NHL seasons, last season was more of a learning experience than any of the others.

"It was sort of defined by two parts — since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach and since the All-Star Game," Nash said. "You don’t get the tempo you want by playing just 14 minutes a game. You look around the League and see the prominent forwards playing at least 20 minutes a game and in all of the important parts of each game. When Ken Hitchcock came, he kind of challenged me to be at the level that the great forwards are who play the power play and kill penalties in addition to playing on the team’s top line.

"But 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. 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."

That positive reinforcement for this man-child means nothing but good things for fans around the NHL.

"You don’t get to the level that I achieved and then just pat yourself on the back and stop," Nash said. "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.

"The best advice I ever got was from Dale Hunter when I played my junior hockey for him at London (in the Ontario Hockey League). He always reminded his players that hard work beats talent and harder work from talented players is really hard to stop."

Is Nash captain material? You bet. He wants to be the team leader, the guy who can make the difference between winning and losing.

"You look at the leaders like a Steve Yzerman or Mark Messier and (you) 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."

Hitchcock feels Nash is making progress.

"I saw this kind of evolution with Mike Modano when I was in Dallas," Hitchcock said. "At such a young age, they carry such a burden to be ‘the guy’ every night. But Mo learned, like Rick has to, that we want him to become a complete player, not just a goal-scorer."

There is definitely a sense of professionalism that Hitchcock, a career coach, exudes that makes the players around him better as well.

"You see how prepared he is for each game and you want to be just as prepared," Nash said. "I've never had a coach, at any level that's so prepared for an opponent. We know everything the other team is going to do, almost before they do it. It’s a feeling. I don’t know ... that I can’t really describe. It’s a confidence that what he wants you to do is the right thing."

When a potentially dominant player learns that message at such an early age, it’s clear that good things are about to happen for Nash and the Blue Jackets, who are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time in this their seventh season in the NHL.

The Jackets posted a 28-29-5 record under Hitchcock, who replaced Gerard Gallant in late November. The Hitchcock touch, plus a new voice at the top in the person of GM Scott Howson — who spent the last decade-plus in the Edmonton Oilers organization — should get the Blue Jackets pointed in the right direction.

Hitchcock is stressing a tough, hard-to-play mentality. The defensive part of that equation is essential because the Blue Jackets tied Chicago with 201 goals, next-to-last in the NHL in 2006-07.

Nash, David Vyborny, who led Columbus in scoring with 16 goals and 64 points, and Fredrik Modin (22 goals) are expected to carry the bulk of the scoring load. The Jackets also need more offense from Sergei Fedorov (18-24-42) and Nikolai Zherdev (10-22-32).

The search for scoring from the middle led the Blue Jackets to try moving Zherdev from the wing to center on a line with Nash and Vyborny. Behind either Vyborny or Zherdev at center is Fedorov, veteran defensive center Michael Peca — the team’s big free-agent signing — Jiri Novotny (former first-round pick by Buffalo in 2002), Manny Malhotra, Dan Fritsche and Gilbert Brule.

Given a fresh start himself, Hitchcock is good at figuring out just where each of the puzzle parts fit. What the coach wants most is to lean on the leadership of Stanley Cup winners like defenseman Adam Foote, Fedorov and Modin — an idea he floated without the hoped-for results last season. Peca has been to the Finals twice — with Buffalo in 1999 and Edmonton in 2006 — and he’s is being counted on to provide the energy and grit Hitchcock is looking for, although he played only 35 games for Toronto last season because of a knee injury.

Peca, speedy winger Jason Chimera, who had career-highs with 15 goals and 36 points, Malhotra (nine goals and 34 points) and Fritsche (12 goals and 27 points) give the Blue Jackets a solid group of role-playing forwards.

Another key lift could from one of the team’s first-round picks in the last two seasons — Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek.

The defense needs Foote to be physical and imposing and Duvie Westcott to be mobile and productive. Both lost too much time to injuries last season. Ron Hainsey is the other offensive-minded defender (with nine goals and 25 assists). Rostislav Klesla needs to be a forceful top four defender. Free agent Jan Hejda comes from Edmonton with Howson and is expected to challenge Ole-Kristian Tollefsen for ice time. Former third-round pick Kris Russell is small but skilled and could crack the lineup this season.

In goal, Fredrik Norrena made his first trip around the NHL a successful one filling in for erstwhile No. 1 Pascal Leclaire, who missed most of the season with injuries. Norrena became the first goalie in team history to post a .500 or better record, going 24-23-3 with a 2.78 goals-against average. Leclaire is back and ready to challenge Norrena for the starting job.

The Blue Jackets reduced their goals against by 30 from 2005-06 — in large part to the disciplined coaching of Hitchcock and the goaltending of Norrena.

This is still a very young team — Nash, Zherdev, Fritsche and Brule all are under 25. But the steady hand of Hitchcock should put the Blue Jackets closer to their first-ever playoff berth.

"We’re still a young team," Hitchcock said. "We must define the roles of all of our players to make them more like a team."

It started with Rick Nash last season. Who’s next to see his potential transformed into production for the Blue Jackets?

 

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