Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Time to heal: My thoughts on the Rick Nash trade

If you want my analysis of the Rick Nash (plus Steven Delisle and the conditional 2013 third rounder) trade for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and the Rangers' 2013 first rounder, go check out my Dark Blue Jacket Plus piece at Fox Sports Ohio.  (Spoiler: I'm not entirely opposed to the trade on its merits.)

So let's use this blog to share some feelings, not just stats.  And I've built up a lot of them over the past five months or so.  Bear with me as I share and start the healing process after a long, unpleasant run with my favorite NHL team.

First, I feel relief.  I am THRILLED that I don't have to keep half an eye on the hockey media outlets to see if Rick Nash is finally going to get traded.  Love all of you to pieces, but Mrs. DBJ is still ribbing me about how I groggily asked her as I emerged from surgery on draft night whether the Blue Jackets traded Nash.  It clearly had become too much.  I'm sick to death of this story and am just glad that it's done.

I am at least as excited that this story is not lingering into the 2012-13 season.  Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards is, too, as indicated at 3:48 of this interview with Bob McElligott:



The players put a good face on this mess - that of the CBJ trying to move Nash, Nash making it excessively hard to move himself while being on the record that he didn't want to play for the Blue Jackets any more.  You cannot tell me with a straight face, however, that having an estranged superstar captain in your midst is conducive to a positive, productive team environment.  He may have been a great on-ice player (wasn't last year, but he's been great in the past) and may have been a fantastic leader (I'll take your word for it), but the point remained: RICK NASH DID NOT WANT TO PLAY IN COLUMBUS ANY MORE.  

Nash saccharined it up at his post-trade deadline press conference in the CBJ media room (which I still cannot believe was allowed to happen and, in my opinion, only made the Blue Jackets look weak in the process), but the fact remains that he rejected his team, rejected his coaches and rejected his teammates.  He wanted out for the benefit of his career. At a human level, how do you deal with that over an extended period of time?  I suggest that Richards' comments indicate that he wasn't excited at the prospects of that.

As I said back when Nash's trade demand was made public, I wanted Nash pulled from the lineup immediately.  His value was set (and proven not to be what the Blue Jackets were rumored to have wanted), and the team desperately needed to use the last 20 games of the season to figure out what they could become in a post-Rick Nash world.  Line combinations/defensive pairings, player leadership...the whole shooting match.  This team was the worst in the NHL last season, and they had a golden opportunity to begin the process of rebuilding (or reshaping, revisioning or whatever term you want to use for the same thing).  There was nothing to be gained by having Nash around.  I took a LOT of heat for this stance - go look at the archives from February 28-onward.  I won't lie, the criticism stung.  Still, I stand resolute that this was the best possible approach for the team to take and hope that those who disagreed with me then can now appreciate my perspective that the last 20 games of the season were functionally wasted as preparation for the 2012-13 season and beyond.

And yes, I remain bitter that the Columbus Blue Jackets fans were cheated out of an appropriate "Rick Nash Tribute Night" by having him play out the string.  Nash once was integral to the Blue Jackets' success, and fans never got to give him the proper good-bye that all sides deserved.  Now, what will we get?  A video tribute during a TV timeout...or perhaps a terrifically awkward pregame ceremony...on April 5th?  No, it should have happened with a symbolic cutting of the cord between the two parties last season.  "Thanks, Rick, for everything.  Now let's all move on our way."

But he's gone now, and we know what the Blue Jackets got in return.  You know what the biggest feeling I have is at this moment?  Relief.  The 2011-12 season, especially those last 20 games, were no fun for yours truly.  And when you're supposed to be blogging for fun and not having fun...well, you start questioning a whole lot.

I still am questioning - for example, I still can't understand why J.P. McConnell hasn't shaken up the hockey operations structure beyond bringing in Craig Patrick - but am finding myself reconciling myself with where the team is at...which makes me think that I'm starting to heal.  Barring some miracle (and I was catching wind of a fair bit of "if this, and this, and this, and this...then we MIGHT be a playoff team this season" talk today), the Columbus Blue Jackets are not going to be world beaters in 2012-13.  We can hope, or wish, or whatever...but the odds are stacked against the team.  They would have been stacked against the Blue Jackets if Nash was playing for them, but Nash had a terrific way of inspiring superstar-driven hope when the cold, hard truth was that he was just one player on a team that wasn't very good.

But now that this Nash soap opera is over, I've stopped the more existential (blog-wise) questioning.  I'm actually feeling OK.  I'm OK with a team that's in 30th place and is making the necessary steps to getting out of the cellar.  I'm very happy to see the team flattening the peaks and valleys between the highest and lowest paid (and, hopefully, highest and lowest talented) players.  As I wrote two years ago about Nash, his monster contract and all that entails:
[Nash's contract] also is a telling statement about everything I dislike about the economics of professional team sports.  Simply put, you can be one of the greatest players in the world, play pretty darned well, and your team can still be sub-par.  Yet you get paid like you're winning championships twice a season.  I have a general understanding of Adam Smith and the laws of market economies, but it's totally out of whack in team sports.  By investing so much money in one player, you're short-changing your overall talent pool.  And the one rich player's performance is directly impacted by having (relatively) sub-par talent around him.  Madness.

(Digression: The mad scientist in me would love to see a team where every player is paid roughly $2.7 million - the average salary on a 22-man roster with a $59.4 million salary cap.  Do you think a team that has nothing but $2.7 million talent top to bottom could win a Stanley Cup?  Think about it.  And then move on.)

But the Jackets DID pay Nash that much money.  So, if talent is equivalent to money, Nash is worth roughly two R.J. Umbergers or Antoine Vermettes, 3 Fedor Tyutins, 6 Kris Russells or 11 Jared Bolls (Hmmm...Boll comparison might be accurate...).  He's good, but is he that good?  Is anyone that good?

Which brings me to the on-ice performance.  I know that Nash is only one player on a team of 20+.  At the same time, his financial position with the Columbus Blue Jackets is such that he has put himself under the microscope on every shift, every game, every season.  The team's investment in him is too high for anything less.  He's a great player, but he needs to be even better.  He needs to score more, check more, lift his fellow players' games and, yeah, outright win a disproportionate number of games by his skill alone.
Beyond the pay versus performance question, there was another entirely unsatisfying component of Nash's game that, frankly, I'm glad to get past as well:
Lastly, there's the leadership matter.  In my opinion, Nash was appointed captain of the Blue Jackets for all the wrong reasons.  I will grant that the "C" probably influenced his interest in re-signing with the Blue Jackets (after they made him the sixth highest cap hit in the NHL).  Past that, however, Nash has not appeared to demonstrate the leadership necessary to take a reasonably talented team out of a fall-winter '09 tailspin that cost Ken Hitchcock his job.  It is mind-blowing that Scott Howson has to keep running out to the marketplace to bring in "leaders" like Chris Clark and Ethan Moreau when he has a superstar player who should be the leader for the team under long-term contract.  Yeah, over $4.5 million invested in shoring up Rick Nash's leadership shortcomings.  If I was Nash, I would be embarrassed by this recurring development.

So let me suggest what we probably have is a fantastic player who has been miscast as a leader of men.  Some people have it, some don't.  To date, I haven't seen it out of Rick Nash.  I'm not in the locker room nor on the team plane, so I can't say that my impressions are fact; Scott Howson's personnel moves, however, lend credence to my opinions.

So this is Nash's career challenge.  He took the mantle of uber-highly paid superstar, captain of the team.  There's no one else to blame if things don't happen on this team.  It's a high bar, but he set it when he accepted the "C" and signed the deal.  As such, Nash needs to take it as a personal responsibility - no, a personal obligation - to get this team into the playoffs and do some damage while there.  Anything less, and we have reason to discuss whether his time in Columbus was less than successful.  Time to step up.
Guess what?  Rather than step up in all facets of being both a superstar and captain for the Blue Jackets and get results commensurate with his position on the team, Nash chose to leave.  So he's gone, and I get to cheer for the players he left behind.  I'm fine with that.  Really, I am.

I want to root for a team that's built the right way, with increasingly talented players up and down the roster who want to be here and want to win here.  In fact, I have absolutely no problem with rooting for the plucky underdogs, a position in which the Blue Jackets apparently have chosen to cast themselves for at least the next season.  The 2012-13 Columbus Blue Jackets will have to play every shift harder than their opponent.  They are going to have to pass, shoot, skate, block and hit better than they thought possible in order to succeed.  Every last one of those players.  They're going to have to have some darned good coaching.  And I look forward to cheering that effort on.

With that said, I think the open wounds of the 2011-12 season are beginning to heal over.  The Blue Jackets won't be going to the Stanley Cup Finals any time soon, but at least I can be optimistic that we'll see a team that's trying.  And after what I've seen for the past three seasons, that will be a refreshing change.


5 comments:

  1. Great read! I particularly love the second to last paragraph. "I have absolutely no problem with rooting for the plucky underdogs," my thoughts exactly! I think this season is going to be filled with a lot of fun games to watch. Nothing is more exciting than watching a bunch of blue collar type players battle it out. And although I go into every season expecting the cup finals (as crazy as it can sound sometimes), I truly think the 2012/13 Blue Jackets are going to be vastly under rated. Is it hockey season yet?

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  2. Back in the early days of the CBJ, before there were all the 'stars', there was a whole bunch of blue collar players. We didn't win games on talent, we won games because we outworked the opponent. As the years have gone on, we have gotten away from that. In my opinion, a lot of that was due to the Captain, who would take games off. If the Captain could get away with it, why not everyone else? The total team shut down led to one coach getting fired. (The other was fired because he was an idiot). Maybe now, we can get back to having a team that will work, and to leadership on the team that will hold teammates accountable for what they are doing.

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  3. Excellent article. As I've said from day one;these are professional players. They get paid to play a game. Go out, give your BEST EFFORT, and I will support you to the end, bitter or not. Show me you CARE about me, the fan, the community, the team, ' the logo on the front, not the name on the back". I will GLADLY come back for more.That is the reason we fans root for THE HOME TEAM not just ths player. If Nationwide has 15,000 fans with an entertaining team, the place WILL ROCK. An atmosphere not seen often recently. As a glass half-full kind of guy, I hope to see COMPETITIVE hockey. THAT'S ALL I ASK. Good luck to R.Nash. Be careful what you ask for, you just may get it. Now, if we can just get Bernier for Mason and a bag of pucks..........

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  4. DBJ, spot on! Two of the three attitude problems are now traded. Only a mason jar of attitude trouble left.

    Anaheim sure could use a wiz of a defenseman, maybe for a disgruntled Ryan? Ditto Philly, who also could use a #1 D-man...

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