Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nash clearly has the It factor Rangers need

By Larry Wigge

You get a pretty clear picture of what's going through Rick Nash's mind when you see the tattoo of the shark on his left shoulder.

"I like the persona of a shark -- dangerous, scary and deadly," Nash laughed.

And that just what the 6-4, 219-pound right wing was all of that and more for nine years. Dangerous. Scary. Deadly. He was clearly the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise, after being the first overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

Nash posted 289 goals and 547 points in 674 regular-season games with Columbus -- including 30 or more goals seven of his nine season with the Blue Jackets.

The Brampton, Ontario, native, became the captain of the Blue Jackets at 24. But Nash was far more valuable to the club in play in All-Star Games and in the Olympics. For whatever reason, Columbus couldn't find the right mix to put around him. 

No center to get him the puck, yet he still topped 40 goals twice.

So, we take you to the 2011-12 season -- another 30-goal season. But, Nash, getting tired of the team's lackluster play. He demanded a commitment. But ...

Instead, he got no help. So he demanded a trade-me scenario to Columbus midway through the season.

Rick had a no-trade clause in his contract -- so he offered six clubs the Blue Jackets could deal with. No trade could be made prior the trade deadline on February 27. Columbus looked at this as a get-rich quick scheme. But, over the next six months, they found out otherwise.

While the Jackets were targeting defenseman Ryan McDonagh, center Derek Stepan and rookie sensation Chris Kreider from the Rangers -- all three players were considered non-starters in trade discussions.

Finally, on July 23 Columbus settled for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Ansimov, minor league defenseman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick in 2013 for Nash, along with minor league prospect Steven Delisle.

The get-rich quick scheme ended in a six-month game of chicken, with GM Scott Howson flinching -- and eventually losing his job in Columbus.

"It took a long time, I'll tell you that much," Sather said, "was a deal we couldn't turn down.

"By adding Nash, it doesn't break up the core of our hockey club. This quality of hockey player doesn't come around very often. You don't have the chance to make this kind of a deal ... this is a very important deal for our hockey club."

Said coach John Tortorella, "I think he's at a point in his career where this is the next step in his game. He comes to a bigger market, more pressure on him, trying to find his way to produce in the playoffs. He handled himself very well at Columbus. This is a different stage for him. I think this is perfect timing for Nash and the Ranger organization to have him here."

Nash stepped up to the challenge of playing with an Original Six team.

"This is great," Nash emphasize in his opening statement after the trade. "This is what I grew up with in Toronto, where hockey is a big deal. This is what I dreamed of when I dreamed of playing in the NHL. And the only time I got that was when I went back to Canada six times to play those teams, or play in the Olympics.

"I've had expectations on me my whole career, since being a high draft pick and going to a club that had never made the playoffs. I think professional athletes like the pressure, they embrace it. And it's no different here for me."

Nash led the Rangers in scoring in mid-March with 10 goals and 14 assists in 25 games. He beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on a shootout goal March 18 and came right back with a third-period wrist shot against the New Jersey Devils one night later, beating them 3-2.

Nash was catching the attention of others around the NHL in his first nine seasons.

"We were sitting on the bench, just laughing at how good he is," Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said, recalling a moment at Team Canada's 2006 Olympic training camp. "It's fun watching him play, watching him develop. Everyone is seeing how he is so dominating."

Consistency is often a young player's bugaboo. But Nash has always been mentally tough.

"It was sort of defined by two parts -- since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach and since the All-Star Game," Nash said of the 2007-08 season. "You don't get the tempo you want by playing just 14 minutes a game. You look around the league and see the prominent forwards playing at least 20 minutes a game and in all of the important parts of each game. When Ken Hitchcock came, he kind of challenged me to be at the level that the great forwards are who play the power play and kill penalties in addition to playing on the team's top line.

"But the confidence really came to a head for me when I went to the All-Star Game -- even though my numbers might not have been where I wanted them. It was funny, but I looked around the locker room and at all of the stars at the skills competition and during the game and I felt like I belonged there. It was kind of like a boost in confidence for me."

That was positive reinforcement for this man-child.

"You don't get to the level that I achieved and then just pat yourself on the back and stop," Nash said. "You want that kind of good pressure. There are a lot of young players who learned from their early experience at this level that they can’t just do it in spurts. You see them do it every shift, every game. That’s the kind of consistency I want for myself ... and my team.

"The best advice I ever got was from Dale Hunter when I played my junior hockey for him at London (in the Ontario Hockey League). He always reminded his players that hard work beats talent and harder work from talented players is really hard to stop."

The Rangers are clearly a better team with Nash in the lineup. 

"He's very talented. You can see each day the level of skill comes out more and more," Henrik Lundqvist said. "It's fun for a goalie against a guy who loves to score. So far, it's been a good test. A team can go a long way working really hard, but you need some skill. That could be the difference a lot of nights."

That's when former Columbus GM Doug MacLean remembered what former Quebec and Washington captain Dale Hunter, a heart-and-soul player in the NHL for 19 seasons, told him about Rick Nash before MacLean picked Nash No. 1 overall in 2002.

"Dale told me that this kid had all the courage and passion to lead a team to the Stanley Cup." Maclean recalled. "And if Dale Hunter says that, the I believe it."

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