Parallel Paths: Nash, Kovalchuk and the Reality of Change

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As the calendar slips from May to June, Columbus Blue Jackets fans are likely facing what was unthinkable less than a year ago – the impending trade of team captain Rick Nash.

Simultaneously, New Jersey Devils followers are relishing their involvement in the Stanley Cup Finals, due in large part to the efforts of Ilya Kovalchuk, who has been instrumental in getting his club to the precipice of the ultimate prize.  Kovalchuk, once the leading hope for the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, enjoyed his first playoff series win this year, and undoubtedly understands the situation that Nash – and the Blue Jackets – confront. Indeed, the parallels between the two players’ paths through the NHL are striking, and those similarities – and some important differences – provide some intriguing insights into the prospects for Nash and Columbus as the off-season heats up.

Kovalchuk, of course, was the #1 overall pick in the 2001 Entry Draft, the third draft for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.  Nash was the #1 pick a year later, also the third draft for the Blue Jackets, who began NHL play one year after Atlanta.  Both are big men – Kovalchuk at 6’ 3”, Nash at 6’4” – and have that “power forward” game in their arsenal.  As we’ll explore later, Nash makes more use of that game, as a general rule.   Both players were installed immediately as major components in their drafting teams’ structures, and both have been criticizes – particularly early in their careers – for playing a primarily offensive game, and largely eschewing their defensive responsibilities.  The two forwards shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with the Flames’ Jarome Iginla in the 2003-04 campaign, with all three notching 41 goals.

Even the drafting teams share some remarkable similarities.  The Thrashers and Blue Jackets each had a solitary playoff appearance in their first (and, in Atlanta’s case, only) eleven years of existence – and each were swept in that appearance (Atlanta by the Rangers in ‘06-‘07, Columbus by the Red Wings in ‘08-‘09).   Of course, the similarity that many focus on today is Kovalchuk’s trade to the Devils at the trade deadline of his 8th season in Atlanta, and the substantial likelihood that Nash will move after his 9th year in Columbus.

Ilya Kovalchuk Devils hockey

(Icon SMI)

Examining the two players’ statistical lines shows further similarities – but also begins to reveal important differences.  Kovalchuk has averaged approximately 78 games played per season, versus 75 for Nash, and both have been largely minus players over their careers.  Nash averages minus-eight, but has had three “plus” seasons in his nine years in Columbus.  Kovalchuk, on the other hand, averages minus-eleven, and has had only one “plus” year – ironically being the year he was traded to New Jersey.  Now, I am not a fan of the plus/minus statistic, as I am of the view that it is largely a team (or shift) level statistic that is improperly used to gauge individual performance.  Nonetheless, it is an area of similarity, but is due more to the lack of success of their respective clubs, and the players’ proclivity for offense, rather than some fundamental quality of their play.

It is in the area of productivity where Nash and Kovalchuk diverge more significantly.  While Kovalchuk shoots slightly more often (284 times per season, compared to 253), he has a significant edge in both goals (40.6 average vs. 32.1 for Nash) and assists (37.9 vs. 28.7).  In his NHL career, Kovalchuk has failed to reach the 70 point barrier only three times, and has surpassed 90 points twice.  In contrast, Nash has bettered 70 points only once, and has never cracked the 80 or 90 point barriers.  Now, some will argue that this is primarily due to the “run & gun” system in play in Atlanta for much of Kovalchuk’s tenure there, as well as the caliber of players Kovalchuk teamed with, contrasted with those that Nash played with.  While certainly the “offense first” system that the Thrashers employed played nicely into Kovalchuk’s hands, a closer look suggests that more may be in player here than meets the eye.

Without a doubt, Kovalchuk reaped the benefits of having Dany Heatley around for a couple of seasons, Marian Hossa there for two full campaigns, and longer stints for Vyacheslav Kozlov and Marc Savard.  But, with the sole exception of the offense-addled 2005-06 season, Kovalchuk’s best seasons came without Heatley, Savard or Hossa in the house.  At the same time, while not perhaps enjoying the depth of talent that Kovalchuk had in Atlanta, Nash has played with Ray Whitney, Antoine Vermette, Nikolai Zherdev, Andrews Cassels, Geoff Sanderson, R. J. Umberger, Jeff Carter and Kristian Huselius, among others – many of whom enjoyed 50 and 60 point seasons or more while Nash was there.  So, while style and teammates account for some of the difference, I submit that there is more.

Keep in mind that, whatever the differences in productivity between Kovalchuk and Nash over the years, neither Atlanta nor Columbus showed the ability to consistently convert the talent of these to individuals into team success on the ice. Both organizations paraded a long line of players in and around their stars, hoping to reach that “critical mass “ of talent and chemistry that would elevate the team as a whole – without success.

Rick Nash Blue Jackets

(Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

It has long been a mantra in Columbus that “if only they got Nash a true #1 center . . .”  Laying aside the metaphysical argument over what a “true #1 center” might be, the fact remains that such efforts have gone for naught.  For all his foibles, and his apparent snit at having been traded to Columbus, Jeff Carter is a helluva hockey player, and his talents were just as apparent as his displeasure.  However, equally obvious was the utter failure of the attempts to match Nash and Carter on the same line. Atlanta went through a similar process with Kovalchuk.

Along the way, both organizations made some awful, awful personnel decisions, all in the name of building a franchise around their superstars.  In Columbus, Doug MacLean refused to sign Ray Whitney to an extra year of his contract, thereby losing a decade’s worth of productive talent.  Atlanta traded Hossa and Pascal Dupuis  for Colby Armstrong, Eric Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a pick that netted them Daultan Leveille, who just completed his tenure at Michigan State University.  These are just examples, but analysis of these moves is not the point.  The point is that both clubs have moved heaven and earth in an effort to build their clubs around these two stars – and failed.  Why?

In my view there are a few primary reasons that clubs reach the point that Atlanta reached with Kovalchuk, and Columbus is careening toward with Nash.

First, hockey is a game of chemistry, which necessarily involves the meshing of multiple talents into a whole that is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. While this is true of all team sports, to one extent or another, only in hockey does that chemistry need to manifest itself in a high velocity environment.   It is therefore almost antithetical to attempt to use a single player as the axis around which the hockey universe revolves.  At a very practical level, this becomes particularly true in a salary cap environment, when a single player dominates the landscape. To do so requires a player with a truly unique set of skills, and a surrounding cast that carefully blends young and veteran talent.  This is a difficult task for any organization, but particularly hard for expansion clubs, who have develop some core of talent, with little in the way of tradable assets, while allowing time for prospects to develop.  A few missteps can set a fledgling organization back in its development, and both Atlanta and Columbus have had more than a few of those.

Secondly, the essential qualities of the player himself play a big role in how these events unfold.  That sounds obvious and trite in the abstract, but is a bit subtler in the application.  As young players, both Nash and Kovalchuk were single-focus – using their size and skill to score goals. Period.  The defensive end was strange and scary territory, and both players were taken to task for that reason.  Ken Hitchcock took Nash under his wing and developed his defensive game, which has enabled him to become more well-rounded.  With his long reach, Nash can be deadly on the penalty kill, but his defensive zone presence has waned some since Hitchcock’s departure.  Kovalchuk has also seen the light of the two-way game, particularly since coming to New Jersey, where defense is king.

However, Ilya Kovalchuk’s game has matured over the years in a way that Nash’s has not – namely in the ability to work with others and make those around him better.  The most obvious manifestation of this can be found in the assist numbers, where Kovalchuk has a big advantage over Nash.  Some of this, of course, is attributable to the presence of a Heatley and a Hossa, but not all of it.  Again, Kovalchuk had his highest assist totals after they had departed the scene.

Alexei Ponikarovsky devils win in overtime

(Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

But numbers only tell part of the story.  Watching Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final provided an excellent object lesson.  If anything, Kovalchuk was subject to criticism last night for not shooting the puck and perhaps making one-too-many passes.  That is not something that would have been said nine years ago.  Hossa has developed the ability to make those around him better.  Hossa, Kozlov and Savard had some of their best years while playing with Kovalchuk, and Elias matched his post-lockout highs this season.

In contrast, Rick Nash has fully adopted the mantle of the power forward, but has yet to mature to that point of making others better.  Perhaps it is because he has been the focal point for so long, and younger players have fallen into the habit of feeding the puck to #61.  Perhaps he feels that he has no other choice but to do it all himself.  Whatever the reason, the Nash of late is prone to  take the puck, put his shoulder down, and attempt to bull his way into position to take the shot.  He is a good, but not great, passer, but seldom sees the passing opportunities when he looks to force the action.  When he is on a hot streak and the moves work, there is nothing prettier to watch in the game of hockey.  When it does not work, however, it is ultimately frustrating, both to the fans and to the development of those around him.  Thus, while Kovalchuk routinely earns 45 assists or more in recent years, Nash has never reached 40, and only once has exceeded 34.  This is not to denigrate Nash’s ability – which is tremendous.  It is, however, a point of divergence between Nash and Kovalchuk, and an important factor in the equation.

Finally, and perhaps equally obviously, is the question of organizational need.   In Atlanta’s case, Kovalchuk was due to become a free agent, and the honeymoon was clearly over.  That created pressure to make a deal, which is never a good thing when you are the seller.  So, the Thrashers settled for Niclas Bergfors (gone), Johnny Oduya (gone), Patrice Cormier (AHL) and a first round pick, which became part of the deal that sent Dustin Byfuglien to Atlanta.  While Byfuglien was a good addition, the other assets that were exchanged make it ingenuous to claim that he was part of the Kovalchuk deal.  From any perspective, New Jersey was the clear winner in this deal.

Entering the off-season, Columbus desperately wants (and needs) to avoid a similar result  with a Nash trade.  Several things operate in their favor.  First, Nash is signed to a long-term contract, and is not going anywhere if he isn’t traded.  Secondly, Craig Patrick is intimately involved in all hockey personnel transactions, and simply will not allow a bad deal to go down.  Most analysts saw Patrick’s influence at the trade deadline, when the Blue Jackets dangled Nash – at a very high price.  While no deal was done, it enabled Patrick and GM Scott Howson to elevate the price for Jeff Carter, which looked reasonable in comparison to the price tag for Nash.  Receiving both Jack Johnson and a 1st Round Pick in either 2012 or 2013 (the Blue Jackets’ choice) for the disgruntled Carter was a coup.

(Dave Gainer/THW)

While it is true that Nash has a No Trade Clause, and has ostensibly provided a list of teams that he would find “acceptable”, this might not provide Nash with the leverage that might otherwise exist.  After Scott Howson revealed that the move to trade Nash came at the players’ request, Nash came out with statements to the effect that he did it to “help the team”, in terms of acquiring multiple assets in return for his trade.  Whether that is true in whole or in part, Nash has placed himself in a bit of a P.R. box.  If the Blue Jackets come to him with the best deal for the organization – but not a club necessarily on his list – what does Nash do?  Does he reject the deal and make his earlier statement a lie?   Given the kind of guy Nash is, that seems unlikely.

My passing reference to Nash’s character is just that – a passing reference.  I have intentionally avoided discussion of the more esoteric and fuzzy notions of character and leadership when discussing these two fine players.  While undeniably important factors in any hockey move, the fact is that there are few people who truly have the type of information that would enable such a valid comparison.  I am not one of those people.

I can say that Nash is a well-spoken, understated guy who has acted with class during his time in Columbus.  He has been active in the community, and has not spoken ill of anyone.  I have never heard a credible word of criticism concerning Kovalchuk’s character.  But, in the final analysis, I don’t really know either of these gentlemen, hence making it unfair to premise any part of my analysis on such surmise.

A catastrophic season of injury and unmet expectations have created substantial roster needs in Columbus, and Nash is the one asset that can fill multiple needs in one transaction.  One of the more unsavory truths in professional sports is that a player’s value derives not only from the statistics he puts on the board, but from the value he can bring in a trade.  Some bring one, some bring another, and some bring both during their careers.  When that organizational need grows urgent enough, the balance on the scale tips from statistics to return, and that is when deals happen.

There are many teams with organizational needs of their own that Rick Nash would go a long way toward fulfilling.  Thus, it seems likely that Nash will soon be following the footsteps of Kovalchuk in finding a new workshop in which to ply his trade.  Unlike the Atlanta Thrashers, however, the Blue Jackets are well positioned to receive maximum value for Nash’s services.

An entire fan base is hanging on that result.

2 Comments

  1. great post, Jeff. The irony of the situation is that Nash could be part of the solution here if he would figure out how to bottle his game while Hitch was here. Shame if that ship has truly sailed. I wish him the best but he’s kidding himself if he thinks he can win w/out adjusting his game.

  2. Jeff, I love the way you write–this article and your regular offerings over at “Ten-minute Misconduct”. This is a thoroughly thought-through and well-reasoned comparison. I will hate to see Nash leave the CBJ, but I have now come to peace with it. It will likely be best for his career and hopefully for the Blue Jackets. With the new Nationwide Arena deal done, it is very unlikely that the Jackets will share a similar fate as the Thrashers after their stars left. But, in the case of the Jackets, the team may not leave Columbus but the fans may continue to leave the team if significant improvements to the team and its performance aren’t made soon. For some of the casual fans, Blue Jackets = Nash. If/when Nash is traded, well, what are the Blue Jackets then to these folks? The hockey “experience” and “performance” will have to replace the void left by him. Again, great article, Jeff!

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