Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rick Nash: The Perception of More

Back in January I posted on what moves Howson should make moving forward, which included trading Rick Nash to the Los Angeles Kings for Drew Doughty. Following that piece I heard many comments regarding how low Nash's trade value had sunk. Based on these comments I started working on this post. Then the "Trade Carter" movement began and this post seemed off base. Then Carter got healthy and #CBJ-land came to its senses and realized moving Carter for fifty cents on the dollar was a bad move (although the mainstream media hasn't caught on yet). This piece stayed as a series of point form notes that I planned on getting back to before the trade deadline. Then this happened and everyone everywhere went nuts over Rick Nash trade rumors.

Why is this relevant? Well it proves my unposted piece right. Rick Nash is seen around the league as a true superstar, a franchise caliber player. However, take a look at Rick Nash's numbers. Hockey Reference lists the ten players whose careers are most similar to Nash. The top five: Jason Spezza, Danny Briere, Rick Martin, Olli Jokinen and Martin Havlat. Those are not franchise caliber players. Don't get me wrong, Rick Nash is a fantastic hockey player and a great guy. But if he is a teams best player, that team is never even getting a sniff of a Stanley Cup. Having watched Nash for well over a decade now (going back to his time with the London Knights), he has always shown flashes of being a top five player in the league. Those flashes are tantalizing. They give front offices around the league the perception of more.

For a good example of this check out Justin Bourne's piece on Nash from yesterday. Bourne has drawn the ire of Blue Jackets fans in the past for wanting Nash traded to a team that gets more national exposure. However, Bourne is basing his opinion of Nash off watching him in the World Championships and Olympics, where he has constantly played his best hockey. That is not the player that has been seen in Columbus. He will have stretches of play like that, but that is not the player who shows up for 82 games a year.

Rick Nash is 27 years old now. This is his 9th NHL season. It is pretty safe to say Rick Nash isn't going to change the way he plays. However, age 27 is still young enough that many coaches and GM's around the league will think they can extract sustained excellent play from Nash. Most of these guys are ex-NHLers, and those that weren't probably played minor pro or college hockey. They look at Rick Nash, see the package of size and skill and think they could be the ones who finally extract his hidden Mario Lemeiux-ness. Looking around the league, only Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk can match Nash in terms of size and goal scoring talent. I specifically use the word talent, as talent does not always translate to results on the ice. This is where the perception lies. The narrative surrounding Nash outside of Columbus has long been that once he finally gets surrounded by a better supporting cast, his production will match his talent.

However, look at Rick Nash's teammates over the years. He has progressively been surrounded by more talent on paper. His teams have not improved. Outside of one season, his stats haven't improved. Rick Nash is good for 30ish goals and 30ish assists for 70ish points. His teams (outside of this year) are good for being near the playoff race, either just in as an 8th seed, or close enough that they don't secure a top draft pick. Now look at Rick Nash's teammates in international competition. Obviously there is much more talent, but look at how Nash's role changes. He always plays a top six role, but is usually not the go to player on his line. He has excelled playing a secondary role with players like Jarome Iginla and Dany Heatley ripping shots, and Nash crashing and banging, burying rebounds and generally being beastly. He's usually not playing with the puck on his stick, yet is very effective. When playing for Columbus, he plays very differently. He likes to play with the puck on his stick, he likes to stay on the half-wall on the powerplay, and he prefers turning his back to the net on the rush over dropping his shoulder and going hard to the net.

To be honest, I don't think Rick Nash has the fortitude to play the style he excels at for a full season. It is easy to play that way for a handful of games while wearing the red maple leaf on the chest. It is much more difficult to pull that off for 82 games with a team logo on the front. The perception is that a change of scenery and a change of linemates would do that. There are a handful of teams this might happen, but I would be more inclined to expect "What's Wrong with Rick Nash" articles popping up in his new city around this time next year.

Now back to the issue at hand: trading Nash. They need to trade him for a lot. And they can. Players of his caliber just never become available. They are rarely traded without contract, age or off ice issues. Rick Nash is locked in long term at a large (but not Gomez-esque) price, he's still only 27, and is a great guy off the ice. Adding in his talent to these factors, he is the best player available for trade since Joe Thornton was dealt by Boston to San Jose in 2005. That trade had the exact kind of return the Jackets need to avoid. A three quarters for a dollar trade is not going to help this team in the long run. While Boston was able to parlay that cap space into Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, there are no Savard's and Chara's on the market this offseason (Zach Parise excepted, but lets be honest, he isn't signing here).

To get an idea of the potential return, lets look at the elite forwards that have been dealt since the lockout (with no salary cap, pre-lockout deals can't be considered relevant):

-Mike Richards: Traded for  Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and a 2nd round pick. There were potential off ice issues with Richards, and Philadelphia needed cap room for Bryzgalov. However, Nash is perceived around the league as better than Richards (look at their roles at the Olympics, Nash played top six in a scoring role and Richards had to adjust to being a checker and play some wing).

-Jeff Carter: Traded for Jake Voracek, the 8th overall pick, and a 3rd round pick. Same potential off ice and cap issues as Richards. Carter is also not as highly perceived as Nash (he did not make the Canadian Olympic team).

-Dany Heatley: Traded for Marian Hossa; traded for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a 2nd round pick; traded for Martin Havlat. Heatley has had a number of off ice issues, twice asked to be traded and was 30 at the time of the third trade. While probably comparable in terms of talent, Heatley is known for not staying in particularly good shape and teams have worried about his longevity. There are no such concerns with Nash.

-Phil Kessel: Traded for two 1st round picks and a 2nd rounder. Kessel was younger than Nash but not nearly as highly thought of as Nash at the time of the trade. He was also a restricted free agent and Boston did not want to meet his very high asking price.

-Ilya Kovalchuk: Traded for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, 1st and 2nd round picks. Similar in age and perception, but Kovalchuk was a pending unrestricted free agent.

-Marian Hossa: Traded for Dany Heatley; traded for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a 1st round pick. Like Kovalchuk, Hossa was a pending UFA.

-Brad Richards: Traded for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern and a 4th round pick. Tampa had some financial issues at the time (in midst of a sale), and Richards was not as highly thought of as Nash (left off Olympic team two years later).

-Joe Thornton: Traded for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. This is just a brutal trade and Boston only turned it around because they used their cap space very well in getting Chara and Savard.

Most of the trade rumors so far have been something like NHL Player X, Prospect Y and a 1st round pick for Nash. Those are ridiculous. Hossa and Kovalchuk were dealt for more and they were rentals. A lot of CBJ fans want to see a young goaltender who has excelled as a back-up come in return. Ask Tampa how Mike Smith worked out for them. He had been excellent in Dallas backing up Marty Turco, and Tampa thought he was the answer. Turns out that moving a back-up goalie from a good team to the starting spot on a bad team (with a terrible defense) is a very risky proposition. The Blue Jackets better be mindful of this before centering a Nash trade around a Cory Schneider or Jonathan Bernier type player. A top prospect is also a very risky proposition. The Penguins dealt their top prospect in Esposito to the Thrashers in the Hossa deal. Esposito was a rumored 1st overall candidate only a year prior. Including him was a big win for Atlanta. He's a bust of huge proportions now, with injuries and lackadaisical play derailing his career (he's now on his fourth NHL organization, has played zero NHL games, and even spent some time this year in the ECHL).

The only trade I see as being truly successful was the Heatley for Hossa trade. This is the option the Jackets need to explore. That trade saw a superstar who needed a change of scenery (Heatley) dealt for a budding superstar who while very very good, had not yet exploded into elite player status yet (Hossa). This is where I come back to my Nash for Doughty proposal. You have the superstar needing a change of scenery (Nash) for a budding superstar who has not exploded into true elite player status yet (Doughty). While Doughty sure looked like a superstar during his sophomore year, he has not been nearly as good in the two seasons since. This is also an excellent match need-wise, as the Kings cannot score and the Jackets are in desperate need of a number one defenseman. While this exact trade may not be the answer, this type of trade is what they need to explore. The league still has an extremely positive view of Rick Nash. I do not believe Rick Nash can be the centerpiece of a Stanley Cup winning team. The Jackets need to strike while the iron is hot and deal Nash before the perception of the rest of the league catches up to reality.

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