In the six seasons since he was taken with the first pick of the 2002 Entry Draft, power forward Rick Nash
has watched as the Columbus Blue Jackets
went from one of the bottom-feeders in the Western Conference to knocking on the door of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to finally breaking through last season.
Although their inaugural postseason party ended far too soon, crashed by the Detroit Red Wings
in four straight games of a first-round series, Nash looks at what some similarly young teams have accomplished and believes the Jackets are poised to make even more noise in the years to come.
"You look at teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, there's a good, young crew coming in, and I think we're right up that alley," Nash told NHL.com. "We've got good, young players who I think can make a difference in any given game, and it's exciting to have that on your team."
Among those young players are two recent first-round picks, Derick Brassard
and Jakub Voracek
. Brassard (No. 6 in 2006) was the NHL's rookie of the month for October 2008 and led all rookies in scoring with 25 points in 31 games before a dislocated shoulder ended his season in mid-December. He recently signed a four-year contract extension. Voracek (No. 7 in 2007) placed sixth on the Jackets in scoring as a rookie with 38 points and drew an assist on the first playoff goal in team history, by R.J. Umberger
Then there's the player who went from rookie to star in his initial six months in the League. Injuries in goal opened the door for Steve Mason
to make his debut in early November, and he busted through, going 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and League-leading 10 shutouts in 61 games.
Mason won the Calder Trophy and was a finalist for the Vezina. Beyond the statistics and the accolades, he gave the Jackets the feeling they could earn two points every time they stepped on the ice.
"It's huge," Nash said. "When you've got a guy back there who you know is going to stop a lot of pucks and give you a lot of confidence, it's a lot easier to take some chances offensively. It's just the whole way he handles himself. He's a great kid in the dressing room. He's so calm on the ice, which is what you need from your goalie. We're lucky to have him and hopefully he has the same year this year that he did last year."
If that happens, the Jackets might find themselves getting another crack at the Wings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their first postseason matchup was a valuable lesson for the fledgling squad from Columbus. The defending champions, who finished one win short of a repeat Stanley Cup victory, took the first three games by a combined 12-2 score, then held off a furious challenge by the Jackets in Game 4 for a 6-5 victory and a series sweep.
"I think it was good we got the best team in the League," Nash said. "They're unbelievable, and it was nice to get first-hand and see how Stanley Cup champions do it. It was good. It was an eye-opener and it showed why they're the best team in the League."
As Central Division rivals, Columbus sees Detroit six times each regular season. They thumped the Wings 8-2 at Joe Louis Arena in one meeting during early March; Nash was asked what was different when the Jackets faced them again in the playoffs.
"They just take their (game) to another level," he said. "They finish all their checks, they compete on every puck. It's amazing. It was good for us to see how they do it."
Although the Jackets couldn't deliver a victory in either of their home playoff games at Nationwide Arena, it hardly diminished the excitement of a crowd that bordered on frenzied from long before the first puck was dropped until the final seconds ticked down on the season.
"It was crazy, you know; it was awesome. They were so loud, standing up pretty much all game," Nash said. "It was awesome. We have some great fans in Columbus."
One fan in particular, a 19-year-old battling cancer by the name of Ryan Salmons, resonated with the team. Even as his courageous fight was nearing an end, Salmons lived and breathed Columbus hockey. He became close to a number of the players and was able to attend the first home playoff game in franchise history April 21. Salmons died 10 days later.
"He was a huge inspiration to our drive at the end," Nash said. "It just shows that kids from all around the States and Canada idolize us hockey players and we've got to make sure we always give back and help them out in those kinds of situations."