COLUMBUS, Ohio - The clock begins ticking for the Columbus Blue Jackets and captain Rick Nash on Wednesday.
Nash has one year left on his contract with the only NHL team for which he has played, and the Blue Jackets want to sign him to a long-term deal before he can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
One of the top forwards in the league, it's not just a wild rumour that the Toronto Maple Leafs covet the kid who grew up in suburban Brampton. And the Maple Leafs aren't the only ones.
"We'll talk very early in the free agency period," Columbus general manager Scott Howson said. "We'll see if there's a contract that we can agree to here sometime this summer. I'm optimistic we can re-sign him but until you sit down and start having discussions, you never really know."
Nash will be making US$7 million in the final year of his contract with the Blue Jackets. He has played six full years in the NHL, yet turned just 25 earlier this month.
His agent, Joe Resnick, said Tuesday that Nash loves Columbus and the Blue Jackets. But that only goes so far.
"Confident of a deal? It's really up to the Blue Jackets," he said. "We're definitely going to listen and take in everything they have to say. Hopefully we can get a deal done."
With the NHL salary cap rising US$100,000 from last season to $56.8 million, the Blue Jackets can afford to give Nash a raise without gutting a young and talented team that made the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's eight seasons.
Nash, who set the club mark with 79 points (40 goals, 39 assists in 78 games) last season, remains the most important member of the team.
"Obviously, he's what makes this car run," said 20-year-old goalie Steve Mason, the NHL's rookie of the year. "He's our leader. It'll be an important piece to get him signed, hopefully for a long term."
Blue Jackets president Mike Priest shocked many this spring when he said that the club had lost $80 million over the last seven years. He said the financial problems the club has are separate from the personnel side.
"We have a problem with our current economic model as it pertains to our arena operations that must be solved to ensure the long-term viability of our franchise," he said. "That issue will not affect how we move forward on the hockey operations side with regards to player personnel decisions at this time."
The Blue Jackets could lock up Nash by offering a lengthy contract similar to the 12-year, $73 million deal the Detroit Red Wings gave Henrik Zetterberg in January.
"Term is definitely a huge factor," Resnick said. "Rick could do a long-term deal, based on his age, and then come out of it at 33 or 34 and still have several years ahead of him."
Since the Blue Jackets traded up to take him with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft, Nash has been the face of the franchise. He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy for leading goal-scorer with Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk in 2003-2004. He's been a productive all-star the last three season. Nash became the Columbus captain less than two years ago, but his future with the team will come down to contract negotiations.
"For us to make splashes in the free-agent market and for guys to want to come here, having his name signed long-term is a big important piece," forward R.J. Umberger said. "Nowadays anything is possible. People are moving around so much. You just never know. You just hope with these long contracts that they're doing these days that can help keep a player with a team for a long time."