Transfiguration in Columbus As Nash Ventures East

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In the sixteen hours or so since the Rick Nash trade to the New York Rangers was announced, the hockey tongues have been wagging uncontrollably, with the vast majority offering exalted views as to the “winner’ and “loser” in the deal.  Not surprisingly, those views largely coincide with previously held opinions, and the facts, risks and rewards surrounding this deal are conveniently warped, spindled, mutilated . . .or ignored . . .to enable the pundits to justify their views.   Those with a proclivity favoring the large market clubs, particularly on the East Coast, are immediately hailing the deal as a “victory” for the Rangers, and are online allies with the detractors of GM Scott Howson, who decry the return received and have already written off the forthcoming season.  While predictable, most of the commentary I have seen represents surrender to the currently fashionable trend of favoring speed over substance, sound bites over analysis, and finding a villain in every story.  The “truth” is not so clear cut — and indeed is indiscernable at this particular moment in time.

Understand, I was there on October 10, 2002, at the 7:35 mark of the 2nd period, when Rick Nash scored his first goal as a Columbus Blue Jacket, in a 2 – 1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.  I was also in the house on April 7, 2012, when Nash scored his final goal as a Blue Jacket, at the 19:24 mark of the first period, in a 7 – 3 win over the New York Islanders.  In between, there were 287 other goals, a Rocket Richard Trophy, several All-Star Game appearances, and some highlight-reel moments.  Nash was a well-spoken, moderating influence and a terrific ambassador for the City of Columbus and the Blue Jackets organization.  Yet, there are counterpoints to all of these positives — which are conveniently being ignored — or at least minimized — by the bulk of commentators, who choose instead to focus on the question marks accompanying  Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Tim Erixon on their respective journies to Columbus.

Am I sorry to see Rick Nash leave Columbus?  Yes, in the same way that I was sad to see Willie Mays traded from my beloved San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets, and Joe Montana leave the 49ers for the Kansas City Chiefs.  However, like both of those situations, the time has come to move on — for a variety of reasons.  Unlike Mays and Montana, Nash likely has a number of productive years left in his career, which of course serves to increase his value in a deal.  However, the franchise has spent the better part of a decade trying to provide Nash with the type of supporting cast he theoretically needs to prosper, including that mythical “#1 Center”.  Nash could not find synergy with any number of players paired on his line, and his relationship with GM Scott Howson apparently turned toxic after Howson decided to go public with the fact that Nash had requested a trade.  The fan base was becoming increasingly polarized over Nash’s status, with many jumping on Nash for a perceived lack of leadership in the locker room.  This was largely misguided, for nobody except the players and coaches truly know what  goes on behind closed doors, and there was never even the slightest rumbling from the players themselves relating to any disconnect with their captain.  While Nash has never been the highly vocal, “in your face” kind of leader, he has played hurt, played well and been beyond reproach in his demeanor.  However, once the request for a trade became public, the die were effectively cast.  Nash’s image and name disappeared from virtually all team promotional materials, and the names of Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, R. J. Umberger and others were heard more frequently.  So despite Howson’s protestations to the contrary,  it was clearly never a viable option to have Nash return.  As an apparently relieved coach Todd Richards said in the aftermath of the trade: ” It would have been looming over us . . . ”   So, in the final analysis, Nash — and the Blue Jackets — had to move on.

To be sure, Nash holds the reputation as one of the NHL’s elite players.  He is among the super-elite in terms of his $7.8 million cap hit, has starred for the Canadian team in the Olympics and World Championships, and has wowed the crowds at All-Star games.  But Stanley Cups are not won on Olympic ice, nor in a skills competition.  They are won in the course of an 82 game season and four grueling rounds of playoffs, and here it is where Nash has struggled, and the dichotomy of reputation and performance emerges.  While it is an easy matter for those unfamiliar with the Columbus market to off-handedly lay the blame at the organization’s feet for any perceived disconnect between Nash’s salary and on-ice numbers — and certainly some blame is to be found there — it does not tell the entire story.

Nash holds every offensive record for the Columbus franchise – the almost inevitable consequence of joining an expansion club in its 3rd season, and being its most prolific scorer in most of the intervening seasons.  He could dominate  a game with his power . . . but could disappear for long stretches as well.  He could perform magic with the puck on his stick, but was curiously unable to find the sticks of others.  Long portrayed elsewhere as the victim of an organization that Holy Grail of a  “#1 Center” for him,   he was curiously unable to find sustained chemistry when the capable sticks  of players such as  Antoine Vermette and Jeff Carter were paired with him.  Paid as a 90 – 100 point player, Nash has never reached either of those plateaus, nor has he reached 8o points in a season.  The playoff season of 2008-09 was his only excursion above the 70 point bar,  and he has had more seasons in the 50′s (4) than in the 60′s (3).   Yet, he is a consistent 30 goal scorer.

Digging slightly deeper, we find that Nash has been in the top 10 in the NHL in goals twice in his nine years as a professional, and in the top 20 three additional times.  He has never cracked the top 50 NHL players in assists,  and appeared in the top 20 in points only once — in the Blue Jackets’ 2008-2009 playoff run — when he finished 18th. Otherwise, his next closest finish was 31st.   Yet, Nash appears in the NHL’s top 10 four times in another category — shots. Other than his rookie year, when he finished 132nd in shots, and his injury-limited 2005-06 campaign, Nash has never been out of the top 40 in the shots category, and was in the top 25 in six of his nine years.  So, despite the protestations that Nash has suffered from the lack of a top center, it would seemt that the puck is finding its way onto his stick with rather startling frequency.  Keep in mind that other players of similar pedigree have managed to flourish in terms of individual statistics, even when affiliated with poor clubs (See Kovalchuk, Ilya & Heatley, Dany, among others)

Do these seeming contradictions make Nash a villain?  Of course not.  They make him human, and present the myriad factors that a General Manager (and a fan base) needs to account for when figuring out how to handle a star, and assess his value in the event of a trade. The point of the statistical exercise is not to demean Nash, or his ability, but rather to point out that his ascension to glory in New York is far from a certainty.  Over the course of nine years, Nash has been pretty much a 30-goal, 60 point guy.   Could that change?  Yes.  Could it stay the same or go down?  Yes.  The Rangers and their fans are betting on the scenario that Nash, freed from the bondage of Columbus and the burden of the captaincy, will flourish into that 100 point guy in the glow of Madison Square Garden.  The contrarian view is that what you see is what you get, and at the age of 28, the opportunities for further upside, while present, are relatively short-lived.  Additionally, after a decade of operating in the relative anonymity and softball media environment of Columbus, Ohio, questions arise as to whether he will blossom or whither under the far more intense and agressive scrutiny that comes to big stars in The Big Apple.

Here, we begin to move into the intricacies of the deal itself, which is what is stirring all of the fervent reactions today.  The Rangers, for their part, were looking to add offense to their plate.  Consider this rather quirky statistic:  despite their long playoff run, the Rangers scored just 24 more goals than the Blue Jackets  — the 30th place club in the NHL — during the last regular season.  Clearly, the act of sprawling on the ice to block shots is not conducive to significant offensive production.  At the same time, the Rangers needed to be careful about disrupting the chemistry that took them to the brink of th Stanley Cup Finals this past season.  To accomplish this, their choices were really fairly limited.  Zach Parise was undoubtedly a prime contender, but Parise himself ruled out New York fairly early in the process.  Alexandre Semin was a possibility, but Semin has been coyly deliberate in his evaluation of offers, with nobody knowing quite what he intends to do.  With questions swirling concerning Semin’s work ethic, that was likely a Plan B kind of option for Glen Sather.   Bobby Ryan and Shane Doan were also possibilities, but Doan is truly looking for any good reason to stay in Phoenix, and nobody seems quite sure what Ryan’s true availability might be.  So, through the ups and downs, twists and turns that have taken place from the trade deadline to today, the Rangers kept coming back to Nash.

Certainly, a player of Nash’s caliber only rarely becomes available via trade, which is both a good and bad thing.  Free agency may be expensive, but you “only” surrender cash in those deals.  When you enter the trade market, you inevitably are surrendering existing or prospective talent, and that is where the skill and luck of the process enters the equation.  Are your assessments of the target player’s skills and value correct?  What about your appraisal of your own resources?   Where — and when — do you draw the line and walk away?   It’s not an easy dynamic, and the wrong call can set a franchise back for years.   Surrender some talent that blossoms in a new location in exchange for a player or players who either  do not adapt well to your system or fall victim to injuries, and the consequences can be dire.  The line of unemployed General Managers lengthens due to such miscues.  So, by focusing on Nash, the Rangers are effectively going “all in.”  He is one guy — he either succeeds or he doesn’t, and there is no backup plan.  You have 7.8 million reasons to hope he succeeds, and 7.8 million fears that he won’t.  In the meantime, you have surrendered two of your starting forwards (including the guy who led your team in faceoff wins), your prime defensive prospect and your 1st round pick next season.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is called “Risk.”  (While defenseman Steven Delisle and a conditional 3rd round pick are also going to the Rangers, they add little to the analysis here.  Sorry, Steve. . . )

From the Columbus angle, the task and goals were a bit more complex.  On the one hand, in at least a theoretical sense, Scott Howson did not have to trade Rick Nash.  Nash has six years remaining on his contract, and would have had to either play in Columbus, retire, or defect to the KHL had the move not been made.  Of course, that is a hyper-technical interpretation of things, as the reality of your team captain and “Face of the Franchise”  wanting a trade makes his retention a truly non-viable option.  Sure, Nash is a professional, and would have likely played his best, but, as Richards noted, the entire affair would loom over the squad like a hungry vulture.  Not a good thing for a franchise looking to emerge from the cellar.  Also, the entire “losing the Face of the Franchise/Captain” thing was a bit overblown. In truth, the average NHL club changes its Captain every three years or less.  More importantly, other GMs don’t really care.  Certainly, much of the angst and emotional turmoil surrounding the trade can be attributed to Howson himself, who chose to go public with Nash’s private trade request.  In so doing, he may have created a bit of temporary sympathy, but generated more long term external pressure, and likely reduced the ultimate value a bit.  Sure, Nash himself could have gone public with his trade request, but that would have been messy for him, and the equities would have swung in a different direction.  Of course, Nash’s no-trade clause — and The List of approved teams — could have come into play in any event.  Still, had Howson remained mum about the source of the trade request, the entire process could likely have been conducted in a more sedate and insulated atmosphere, and with far less acrimony on the part of the fan base.  Interestingly, the Columbus Dispatch reported today that Howson asked Nash to expand The List over the weekend, but the request was declined.   This tends to support the view that Nash’s claimed  motives for seeking a trade were not necessarily as altruistic as he would have liked everyone to believe.  Still, that doesn’t make him evil, it simply means that he was using his leverage, and that is entirely understandable.

Beyond the pressures of the circumstances surrounding the trade, Howson was in uncharted territory in terms of the specific goals of the trade.  Nash had been the centerpiece –both on and off the ice — since the dawn of the franchise’s third year, and was firmly entrenched as the club’s star when Howson arrived in 2007.   For nine years, the subliminal message has been “What is good for Nash is good for the Blue Jackets”, and the fortunes of both have been inextricably entwined.  Now, for the first time in club history, the opportunity existed to build a young squad of equals, yet with enough experience to weather the bad times.  Howson was remarkably consistent in the general character of what he was looking for — a couple of NHL forwards, a prospect and a pick.  Obviously, some of the scoring lost from Nash would need to be replaced by the acquisitions.  Left largely unstated (and still unrecognized  by most) was the salary cap impact of what would transpire, and the trickle down effect that is yet to materialize.

During the tortuous process between the trade deadline and today, Scott Howson took heat on two primary fronts.  First, he was villified in the media for his “outrageous” demands — allegedly asking for players such as Couture, Kreider, Stepan and others.  You almost have to chuckle at this line of reasoning.  Why wouldn’t Howson ask for the moon?  Nash is under contract, and laws of supply and demand seemed to be in his favor.  Lots of clubs are looking for offense, and very few key offensive bodies were available.  Who knows?  Somebody might bite and accede to his demands, and he would be crucified in Columbus if he were perceived as starting low.  Negotiation is an art, and once you reduce your demand, you can never credibly go back up.  In the final analysis, Howson was hurt by indecision elsewhere.  Zach Parise’s move to Minnesota played right into Howson’s hand, but the inability of Semin, Ryan or Doan to resolve their respective situations near the July 1 time-frame failed to generate that “squeeze” on supply that would bump up value.   With August looming, it became apparent that fair market value had been set, and the deal needed to get done.  If Howson is to be faulted here, it is for being perhaps too aggressive in the way he played his hand, as he clearly alienated some of the other contenders to the point that they dropped out of the race.  However, you can’t divorce the offers from the time at which they are made.  Again, it’s all about gambling, and those clubs apparently did not want Nash badly enough to stay in for the long haul.  The Rangers did.

Howson’s second are of criticism related to the pace at which things progressed.  To be fair, this mostly emanated from segments of the fan base who had been agonizing over this process since late February, with each new milestone that passed — the trade deadline, the draft, July 1 — adding salt to the wound.  While even Glen Sather came out and acknolwedged that these things take time, the prolonged anticipation was accompanied with the expectation that the deal — when it arrived — would be a true blockbuster.  The fact that the ultimate deal fell short of that expectation for many was exacerbated by the duration of the process.  However, no matter when a deal was consummated, the ultimate question would still be that of return, which is where the focus of the current passion is placed.

Clearly, the Rangers got what they were after — Rick Nash.  As noted above, that may mean many different things, depending upon who you talk to.  Is he the 30/60 guy?  Will he blossom into a truly elite scorer?  Something in between?  Will he find chemistry with Richards, where he couldn’t find it with Carter, or Vermette?  Only time will tell.  The Rangers chips are all in Nash’s circle.  The Columbus side of the deal is more involved.  While many are focusing on who the Blue Jackets did not get (i.e. Stepan, Kreider, del Zotto), I submit that the focus is misplaced.  In Dubinsky and Anisimov, Columbus not only gets two forwards, but two centers.  Dubinsky led the Rangers in face-off percentage last season, and Anisimov is as comfortable on the wing as on center ice.  While their numbers were down last season, the shot-blocking, constrictive system the club played was hardly promoting big numbers.  With expanded roles and opportunities, it is not unreasonable to expect that both players could be in the mid-20′s in goals, and in the 50′s in points.  With R. J. Umberger, Derick Brassard, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen and Vinny Prospal all having the ability to hit similar targets, the Blue Jackets are poised to potentially increase their offensive production by committee.  (Think of Herb Brooks’ “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the  right players.”)  With less of the offensive punch coming from a single source, the risk associated with that dependence also reduces.  It’s far less likely to have six guys in a slump at the same time than it is to have one guy down, and the impact per player is less.

With Tim Erixon, the Blue Jackets expand their stable of solid defensemen, which now includes Erixon, Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, Nikita Nikitin, Adrian Aucoin, John Moore and #2 overall draft pick Ryan Murray.   While much has been made of the fact that this was a largely cap-netural deal, with Columbus shipping out $7.8 million  and taking on $7.825 million, what has not been discussed is the fact that Columbus has filled three slots on the roster with that money, instead of one.  Now, with a full roster, a glut of talented blue liners, three 1st round picks in the 2013 draft, and just under $14 million in cap space, the Blue Jackets are likely not done.  They could package a defenseman and a pick for more help in net — i.e. Jonathan Bernier or similar.  They could beef up the offense by bidding on Semin or Ryan, or any other of a thousand permutations of either.  What the Blue Jackets have done, as promised by team owner J.P. McConnell, is effectuate radical change.  The atmosphere that many challenged as “accepting” of losing is effectively gone, and that is an intangible, which, like all other aspects of the deal, cannot be assessed right now. Will Dubinsky and Anisimov step up their games and be the point producers that many think they can be? Maybe.  Will Erixon step in and meaningfully contribute?  Maybe.  Can the Blue Jackets leverage the draft picks and other assets to further enhance this off-season?  Perhaps.   Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but only time will tell.

You see, that is the ultimate point here — the “winner” or “loser” of this deal will not be known for years. as the fortunes of those involve play out on the ice, or as they are in turn used to acquire other players.  To blithely declare either team as a clear-cut victor in this transaction is foolhardy.  Whatever your view may be of Glen Sather or Scott Howson (and both have their flaws), the fact remains that if everything were cut and dried, black and white, this deal never happens.  It is that element of doubt, the existence of risk and reward, that creates that vast gray area in which deals are done.  Ultimately, it all comes down to the product on the ice — points, wins and Stanley Cups.  In the course of this deal, there were missteps that may or may not have impacted the ultimate deal, but neither Howson, Nash nor Sather should be judged on hypothetical “facts” posited less than 24 hours after the deal was struck. In the final analysis, two teams found common ground in that vast gray area between extremes, and the merits of the deal will be played out with each victory and loss, this year and beyond — on the ice, not in the media, the Twitterverse or elsewhere.  That’s as it should be.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: So What Comes Next? « tenminutemisconduct.com

  2. a very thoughtful article…. I watched Nash play in Swiss league in 2004/05, and he WAS a huge floater , swinging out past the blue line for the breakaway pass from Thornton….. really, he has no excuse not to break out to the 35/40 goal plateau again with Brad Richards feeding him…hand best wishes to Columbus, hope you surprise everybody

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