The victory parade is over, the NHL Awards have been distributed, and even the most loquacious pundits are starting to run out of words with which to re-hash the 2011-2012 NHL Season. So, now the work begins again in earnest. For the Los Angeles Kings, while brief diversions will be permitted to schedule days with the Stanley Cup and design the championship rings, the task at hand will be to find a way to reprise the success – a challenge anywhere, anytime — but particularly onerous in a town where memories are short and appreciation fleeting. For the playoff clubs, the task is to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that will enable them to hoist the Cup a year hence. For the fourteen clubs who have watched the entire post-season unfold on television, the tasks are more numerous and complex. Do you stick with the plan, or blow it up and start over? Are the problems on the ice, in the front office, behind the bench or in the scouting ranks? Is it a combination of all of them? How do you balance the mercenary needs of an ongoing business with the more visceral demands of an impatient fan base?
Though Thomas Paine certainly had more dire circumstances in mind when he first referred to soul-trying times, the next few months – and particularly the next thirty days – are the most stressful and arduous of times in the hockey community. Sure, the playoffs are stressful – but in a largely positive way. The trade deadline has elements of the angst and drama that is about to descend, but in a much more finite way. With the informal barriers on trades now vaporized, the NHL Entry Draft less than 24 hours away, and free agency looming in ten days, nobody is immune from the pressures of the moment. Players, prospects, scouts, coaches, GMs, executives, owners — and fans – are all on edge as the uncertainties of the forthcoming weeks blossom, and the magnitude of the decisions about to be made changes from distant hypothetical to immediate reality. ( I won’t even touch the whole issue of the CBA and the possible disruption that adds to the equation.)
Nowhere are these forces more evident than in Columbus, Ohio this morning. The Blue Jackets, girding for their twelfth season on NHL ice, are at a crossroads . . .again. They are faced with the very real prospect – a virtual certainty, really – that their captain and “face” of the franchise, Rick Nash, will be traded – perhaps as early as today. They have a glaring hole to fill between the pipes, and need to find a way to generate offensive production – something that has been lacking since the club first took the ice for the 2000-2001 season. For only the second time in their history, they have a top pick in the draft (#2 overall – the other came in 2002, with which Nash was selected). The Nash situation has polarized the fan base, and is testing both the patience and negotiating acumen of both GM Scott Howson and Senior Adviser Craig Patrick. From a historical perspective, the club is perceived as having squandered several key first round picks over the years (Nikolai Zherdev (2003), Alexandre Picard (2004), Gilbert Brule (2005) and Nikita Filatov (2008)), increasing the scrutiny and anxiety entering this year’s draft. Thus, Columbus is truly a crucible in which all of the issues NHL clubs and their fans face at this time of year are present — in an extremely heated environment.
Many who are unfamiliar with the Columbus community quickly dismiss both the franchise and the city as viable hockey entities. That would be a mistake. For all of his shortcomings as a General Manager, former club president Doug MacLean used his promotional skills to maximum effect in bringing NHL hockey to central Ohio. Youth hockey, high school hockey, adult hockey — unheard of before the millennium celebration – now thrive in the community. Anyone who was present for game three or game four of the 2008-09 playoff series versus Detroit will attest that the environment was an almost surreal outpouring of emotion and support. The 2007 Entry Draft and surrounding events were a sellout, and next year’s All Star Game activities will similarly demonstrate the passion that characterizes the hockey fan base in Columbus.
So, passion is not an issue. Indeed, that very passion creates pressures that may or may not be realistic. With both historical and current roots firmly entrenched in college football, the community at large has a rather myopic view of the NHL landscape. “Patience” is not found in the lexicon carried by the local sports fan, who is accustomed to dealing with 12 game seasons and considers one loss per season disappointing , two losses unforgivable, and three or more losses catastrophic. Thus, the vagaries of an 82-game season and the long term strategies necessary to the development of an expansion NHL franchise are uncharted territory for the average Columbus fan, and the prospect of waiting 45 years for a championship, as the Los Angeles Kings fans have, causes shortness of breath and heart palpitations.
Despite the lofty expectations, the Blue Jackets have managed to slowly build a loyal core of fans, and make inroads into the sports community at large. In so doing, they have overcome indifference by the local media monopoly, a crippling arena lease deal and, to be sure, their own missteps. With the inaugural playoff appearance in 08-09, there was a perception that a corner had been turned, and that the club was poised to emerge as a leader among the final four expansion clubs (Atlanta, Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus) and become a consistent playoff contender. Such was not the case, however, as Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason proved unable to match his rookie form in three subsequent campaigns, and underperformance – on and off the ice—became the order of the day. Last off-season year ago, hopes were again elevated, as Columbus negotiated a trade for the Flyers’ Jeff Carter, signed free agent James Wisniewski, resolved its lease issues, became the intended beneficiary of a highly-desirable NHL realignment plan, and enlisted goaltending assistance via the acquisition of prospect Mark Dekanich and veteran Curtis Sanford. Once again, through a malevolent conspiracy of evens, these hopes were sequentially dashed. Dekanich was injured in the pre-season, and never saw a complete NHL game. Mason was ineffective. Sanford was inconsistent and injured. Carter was disgruntled at the trade, injured and disinterested. Even when healthy, Nash and Carter interacted like oil and water. Wisniewski — the victim of early Shanahan excess – was suspended for the first eight games, and the club lost all eight of those games – and lots more, finishing 30th in the NHL for the first time in their history. The realignment plan was scuttled by the NHLPA, and coach Scott Arniel proved unable to cope with the tailspin.
What little patience existed in Columbus has run out. A contingent of fans have placed the heads of GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest on virtual pikes, and are livid that the two are still employed. The sights of Jeff Carter hoisting the Stanley Cup and Ken Hitchcock accepting the Jack Adams Award are salt in the wounds of many. Yet, positives can be found. Venerated NHL guru Craig Patrick came on board in December of last year, and helped engineer the deal that sent Carter to Los Angeles, and brought Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick to Columbus. Youngsters Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen and John Moore show real promise. St. Louis executive John Davidson is rumored to be considering a Columbus offer. The low draft pick should net some real talent . . .if properly executed.
While variations on all of these issues exist, to one extent or another in most – if not all – NHL cities, they are exquisitely focused in Columbus by one figure – Rick Nash. The Blue Jackets’ captain is simultaneously a unifying and polarizing influence these days, as he has been the face of the franchise and by far its most prominent figure on the NHL stage, but has now reached the point where he might well bring the most value to the organization by being traded elsewhere. The gulf between the “Trade Nash” and “Keep Nash” contingents – and the subsidiary debate over the value to be derived from his departure – have reached epic proportions within the past few days.
The Nash Enigma defies easy description or resolution. On the one hand, Nash has been a model citizen in Columbus – a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy who creates no bulletin board material for the
opposition, contributes generously to the community, and has never had a bad word to say about Columbus, the fans or his team. On the ice, he is capable of dominating performances with his power game, holds virtually every Blue Jackets scoring record, and has shown well in the All Star Game and for Canada’s Olympic and World Cup teams. He has scored 30 goals or more in seven of his nine NHL seasons, and shared the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2004. He plays hurt far more than most fans realize, and – until this year – has been vocally supportive of his decision to remain in Columbus after his ELC ran out. The “Keep Nash At All Costs” contingent points to all of these factors, and asserts an institutional failure to provide Nash with a “#1 Center” as the key to the team’s on-ice issues (along with goal-tending). They point to the prospect of trading the team’s best player as a failure in and of itself.
The “Glass-Half-Empty” contingent has been displeased with Nash for some time. They perceive his soft-spoken nature as a lack of leadership, and lobby openly for the more outspoken R.J. Umberger to have the “C” on his sweater. This group points out that Nash has never reached the 80 point plateau, and other than the playoff season, when he ranked 18th with 79 points, he has never cracked the top 30 in scoring. In contrast, they say, his $7.8 million contract is the fifth richest cap hit in the NHL, behind only Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby and Eric Staal. They point to his streakiness — his on-again, off-again play in the defensive zone, and an overall apparent inability to make those around him better as supporting the concept of a trade. This faction notes that Whitney, Vermette, Umberger, Carter and others have all “failed” with Nash, but succeeded elsewhere, suggesting that these players may not be the problem.
Of course, the truth lies somewhere in that vast canyon in between – as both camps have vestiges of truth in their points of view. More importantly, the concept of “truth” – when applied to a hockey player or any professional athlete – is at best mercurial. A player who underperforms in one setting suddenly excels in another – -with no corresponding increase in surrounding talent. Performance levels vary dramatically from season to season, even though we like to think they shouldn’t. Examine any player’s career closely enough, and you will find aspects of performance that support virtually any position.
The concept of a star player moving on to other clubs is nothing new, of course. Phil Esposito, Patrick Roy, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk and others have all been the subject of trades. Some, like Kovalchuk, were done under the duress imposed by impending free agency. But others were not. Nash’s situation is unique in the fact that he is in the middle of his contract, with Columbus accordingly under no external pressure to move him. However, as with all stories bearing any level of intrigue, this one is not so simple. When the organization began dangling Nash prior to the trade deadline, it was widely assumed that this was simply a radical move by club administration to improve the team. Only after the trade deadline had passed without a deal did GM Scott Howson disclose that Nash himself had asked to be traded. This was awkwardly handled, and gave the impression of tossing the winger squarely under the bus. Nash felt compelled to respond via his own press conference, explaining that he thought his trade could help the team by bringing multiple assets in return. Again, the truth of the situation is likely in between, as the motivations behind the request are likely not as evil as Howson might have implied, nor are they as altruistic as Nash would have us believe. That’s fine – this is a business, and part of that business is putting a winning product on the ice.
I differ sharply with those who characterize a trade of Nash as an institutional failure. Sure, there have been plenty of mistakes over the years on the player personnel side, which have been compounded by circumstances beyond the organization’s direct control. Nash – or any player—provides value to an organization in many ways. Of course performance on the ice, and the intangibles of leadership and chemistry are primary expressions of value, but value is just as validly found in the return a player brings via trade. A very small percentage of NHL players – at any talent level – end their careers with the organization that drafted them.
What appears clear to those who have watched the situation unfold up close, is that the Nash situation in Columbus has become untenable. I believe that a level of mistrust was engendered when Nash and the Blue Jackets were negotiating his new deal in 2009. Nash was clearly upset by the initial offer, and made his position known in a rare public statement of displeasure. Howson & Co. scrambled to put things right in a hurry, and a deal was done in short order, but suspicions of a lingering impact from that transaction have continued, and Howson’s trade deadline presser likely did nothing to improve the situation.
Both Nash and the organization will be put to the test within the coming hours and days. The Blue Jackets are in the enviable position of being able to ask for top return for their superstar – a fact that has caused much grumbling and grousing from observers. The organization would be remiss if they did not seek to extract maximum value, and the fans would be righteously indignant if they settled for marginal return. By the same token, precluding progress based upon unrealistic expectations does the team no good. For his part, Nash’s altruistic motivations will be put to the test if he does not consent to a deal that brings the maximum return to the Blue Jackets.
If no trade materialized, would Nash act like a pro move forward as a Blue Jacket? He has never provided any cause to believe he would do anything other than his best. However, to call that scenario awkward would be an understatement of epic proportions. Owner J. P. McConnell has promised drastic change, so it is clear that some major moves will be forthcoming this summer. To saddle newly-elevated head coach Todd Richards with that burden, on top of integrating a host of new players in the system would be folly of the highest order, and I trust both sides see that.
There are plenty of slings and arrows to be thrown around for mistakes made by coaches, GMs and others, and this off-season will almost certainly Scott Howson’s final opportunity to atone for past sins. However, that is really beside the point. At some point in their evolution, most organizations reach the point where leveraging prime talent to improve the club becomes a realistic consideration. For whatever reasons, Columbus has reached that point now. They can’t be distracted or dissuaded by the possibility that Nash may sparkle with another club. That’s the same thinking that keeps people from buying computers. (“They’ll just be faster and cheaper next year”) Elite hockey players have a limited shelf life, and the opportunities to leverage that ability for long-term benefit are few and far between. They know their price, and if they can get full value, they need to pull the trigger and not look back. Shake hands, say “Well Done!” and move on. While Scott Howson and Rick Nash may never exchange Christmas cards, there need be no villains here. Ultimately, the answers will come from the performance on the ice. And that’s as it should be.