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Nash ready to hoist Jackets on his back

by Larry Wigge
Rick Nash looked out over the dressing room and winked.

That certainly was no sign of content that the Columbus Blue Jackets were no longer in the running for a playoff spot late last season when I chatted with him about the team's future. Nor was it a hint of what he thought might be in store for the new captain's team in 2008-09.

Call it a sense of maturity.

Nash has been the face of the Jackets since he was the first pick overall in the 2002 Entry Draft. Now 24 and entering his sixth NHL season after impressive individual seasons of 41, 31, 27 and 38 goals the last four seasons, the Brampton, Ontario, native wants more, much more, for both himself and the team.

You wouldn't want it any other way from your team's young captain, would you?

Reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history is first and foremost on Nash's mind.

"I firmly believe in the plan that (Jackets General Manager) Scott Howson and (Coach) Ken Hitchcock have for this organization," Nash said in April. "I know he tried hard to get Brad Richards at the trade deadline and I'll be watching carefully to see what he can pull off in the offseason."

There was a confidence in Blue Jackets' hockey in that moment that I've never seen before. A game plan. A focus.

During the offseason, Howson added experienced players like Kristian Huselius, Raffi Torres, R.J. Umberger, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. First-round pick Nikita Filatov is another player who could help the Blue Jackets in their quest for their first playoff berth.

"We added a lot of experience and skill to our roster. How can you not be excited about this season?" Nash said during training camp. "I know one thing: Being captain, it's my obligation to get this team to the playoffs. I plan on doing my best, giving my best to make this team a contender night-in and night-out."

Caring. Dedication. Willpower. All of this packed into a 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame that has players around the league talking about Rick Nash. I remember hearing it first from Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan after playing with Team Canada at the World Championships a few years back.

"We were sitting on the bench, just laughing at how good he is," Doan recalled. "Rick brings a real honest-to-goodness kid's mentality to this game. It's fun for him and it's fun watching him play, watching him develop into the kind of dominating player that ..."

We'll finish the sentence where Doan paused.

"That Mark Messier once showed us with the fire in his eyes and no-one-can-stop-me attitude."

Messier? Well, not just yet. But Nash began showing that type of determination with everything he did offensively as a rookie back in 2002-03.

"He takes everything to the net," Colorado defenseman Scott Hannan said. "For a young guy who is big and strong, he has such quick hands that allow him to put the puck upstairs quickly from in close. Not too many people can do that."

"Those long strides chew up a lot of space," said Sharks center Joe Thornton, who was a linemate in Nash's coming-out party at the World Championships. "Once he gets position on you, there is no way any defenseman has a chance to control him."

We've seen the individual skills and now we're about to see the leadership ability since Nash took over as captain after the Jackets traded veteran defenseman Adam Foote and gave Rick the "C."

"I've never looked at myself as just a young guy with talent. I've always tried to lead by example. Now, I just have to get a little more vocal at times around the guys," Nash said. "When I was growing up, I admired guys like Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla, not just because of the way they played, how hard they played, but because of the way they led their teams.

"I look at being captain of this team as an opportunity for me to show the kind of leadership I know I can provide."
"You can't find a more complete young player. I love the way he carries himself on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room. To me, he's shown he cares for his teammates and this team since I got here. How can you not like the way he springs into action when the game is on the line?."Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock
"I don't think Rick will be as vocal as a guy like Adam Foote was, or other guys are, but he's certainly a guy who exemplifies leadership," said veteran center Michael Peca, who has been a captain in his early days in Buffalo. "I really believe he sacrifices a lot of offense to really be more responsible defensively, unlike other guys who have carte blanche to just play offense and deal with the consequences later.

"That type of sacrifice shows leadership qualities for sure."

Hitchcock has no doubts about Nash using his determination to lead the Jackets.

"You can't find a more complete young player," Hitchcock said. "I love the way he carries himself on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room. To me, he's shown he cares for his teammates and this team since I got here. How can you not like the way he springs into action when the game is on the line?

"He's a difference maker in more ways than just scoring goals."

He has already shown me that he wants to put a team on his shoulders. That's patently clear when you first get a look at the tattoo of a shark on his left shoulder. At that point, you begin to think of what a player like Nash is thinking – saying about how he looks at himself, as he circles his prey and then attacks the net.

"I like the persona of a shark – dangerous, scary and deadly," Nash once told me.

Looking for a breakout player this season? With the additions of Umberger, Huselius, Torres and Filatov to help complement the talents of Rick Nash, I'd pick him to show those shark-like skills more often this season and lead the Blue Jackets to a level they've never reached before.

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