When Columbus entered the Staples Center on Wednesday evening, pundits pointed to the L.A. Kings’ unbeaten record at home, to the speed of the Los Angeles forwards and to the topsy- turvy efforts turned in by the Blue Jackets as the early season has taken shape. An 8 -1 rout of a soaring St. Louis club was followed by a 5 -1 spanking at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. They forgot to consider Jackets’ Captain Rick Nash.
After two periods of being held in check by a swarming Kings’ defense, and the score tied 3 – 3 Nash took matters into his own hands. With 3:12 left to play, Nash swung wide down the left wing, accepted a beautiful cros-ice pass from Derick Brassard just above the circle, and proceeded to put a move on defenseman Davis Drewiske that will haunt the defender’s dreams for awhile. The elegant inside move gave Nash a clear view of the net, and he zipped a wrister past a startled Jonathan Quick into the far upper corner, giving the Jackets a 4 – 3 lead. With 39 seconds left, and the Kings pressing with an extra attacker, Nash accepted a bump pass from R.J. Umberger, and deftly parked a 120-foot empty netter into the heart of the net, sealing a 5 -3 road win for the club and the best possible start for a three game West Coast swing.
To be sure, Nash had plenty of help on this night — the defense was, for the most part, responsible and stingy. Goalie Steve Mason put in a solid performance punctuated by a few remarkable saves, and the grinders on the third and fourth lines chipped in significantly, with goals from Andrew Murray and Jared Boll. Though kept off the scoresheet, young Nikita Filatov contributed in less obvious ways — keeping the puck in play in the offensive zone, gaining entry when others were frustrated, and being aggressive in puck pursuit in all three zones. Still, when it came to crunch time, it was Nash, as it has been so frequently over his seven seasons on NHL ice in Columbus.
It is somehow fitting that Nash turned in this effort in a week when All Star balloting has opened for forwards, with Nash and R.J. Umberger as the lone ballot choices for Columbus. It is an interesting pairing of candidates, and one that highlights the understated manner in which Nash has gone about his business of crafting one of the pre-eminent careers in the NHL at the tender age of 26.
Nash is an unfailingly polite, thoughtful, well spoken man. He is not brash, yet conveys a quiet assurance that some miss. Indeed, his reserved and polite speech sometimes backfire on him. Until he signed an extension in Columbus, taking him through the 2017-18 season, Leafs fans in his native Ontario were salivating at the prospect of stealing him back “home.” Whenever Nash was in (or near) Toronto, the media would besiege him, and he would uniformly acknowledge what a wonderful place Ontario was, and make appropriately deferential comments to the Maple Leafs franchise. His remarks were always polite, vague and non-commital, just the way any club’s PR arm would want him to respond. Still, when the remarks reached Columbus, conspiracy theorists wailed that Nash’s departure was imminent. When Nash uncharacteristically appeared a bit put out by the Blue Jackets’ original contract offer, the alert status went to Defcon 2. In short order, a new deal was signed an order restored to the universe.
However, a similar reaction can be seen with respect to his role as Captain. Again, he is not one for verbal excess — at least not in public. This opens himself up to criticism from some segments of the fan base, who assert that a “louder voice” is needed in the locker room — someone with more assertiveness. This is usually followed shortly by a reference to Umberger, who has ties with The Ohio State University, and is deemed a “local.” Of course, those critics really have no idea how he leads, because they have never been inside the locker room when his leadership skills have been called upon. While it is difficult to imagine Nash as much of a screamer or yeller, it is also true that we hear no disgruntled rumblings from temmates about his leadership style. Keep in mind that Columbus has a solid core of knowledgeable hockey fans, but a larger base of fans who are more comfortable with Ohio State football and appreciate an uppercut far more than a deftly completed toe drag. It is this latter segment that primarily calls for more vocal leadership and more physical play – - whether or not either would be effective.
Ultimately, it is on the ice that Nash does his best leading. Keep in mind that he is now on his 7th head coach — an average of one per year. Since being drafted in 2002, he has had more linemates than Lindsey Lohan has had treatment centers. Too frequently, the entire burden of offensive production has been placed squarely on his shoulders, and he has borne it with equanimity. Ken Hitchcock worked hard to round out Nash’s overall game, heightening his defensive prowess and using him in every situation, including penalty killing, where Nash’s unnaturally long reach frequently created breakaway opportunities. However, with this added responsibility came incerasingly high TOI values. Over the past few years, Nash has routinely been near the top of the league’s forwards in ice time. With his “power forward” style and an increasing willingness to engage physically, 21:00 minutes of ice time was an eternity for him.
Sometimes, between the turmoil and the realtive obscurity of Columbus, Nash’s standing among the league’s elite gets lost in the translation. Take a look at this chart, showing the top goal scorers since Nash entered the league in 2002:[table id=24 /] Nash is consistently among the league’s elite in goal scoring, despite the lack of a supporting cast for much of his tenure in Columbus. That has changed in recent years, and with new coach Scott Arniel bringing an offensive-minded system to the Blue Jackets, combined with the emergence of Brassard, Vermette, Voracek, Umberger and others as dynamic young players, Nash’s numbers look to move nowhere but up. Again, some fans grumbled over a slower-than-normal start this season, but that was largely the effect of the implemenation of a new system and the need to develop chemistry with the lines. If last night was any indication, that chemistry is working just fine.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nash’s record in All Star games. While he was on the All Rookie Team in 2003, he was not named to the All Star Game that year. However, he has played in each of the other four games held since he came to the NHL. (There were no games in 2006 or 2010, being Olympic years, and no game in 2005, due to the lockout). In those four games, he has 6 goals and 4 assists, including a hat trick in the 2008 game in Atlanta, and a 2 goal, 2 assist game the preceding year in Dallas. He arguably should have taken home the MVP trophy each year, but was edged out in voting that would charitably be referred to as “curious”.
Big players find big moments to showcase their talents. Rick Nash did it once again last night, and will do it many more times, this year and beyond. When the All Stars gather in Carolina, he’ll be there — quietly showing his stuff. That’s as it should be.