There is no doubt that Rick Nash is the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization. He is the team captain and signature player, two huge reasons why he was awarded an eight-year, $62.4 million contact in July, 2009.
But Nash is the player who must step up the most this year, the very player for whom the reverence and excuses need to discontinue.
It’s been commonly believed in the national and local media that the Columbus Blue Jackets must find, as their number one priority, a suitable playmaking center to play alongside Nash, without whom Nash is stifled in what he can do for this team.
I’m not going to question that having a legitimate center could have resulted in far greater scoring success for the first overall pick of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. I will, however, say that what Nash has been provided for in the way of a center is far improved from his earlier seasons.
What I really believe is that it’s timing for Nash to step up and take his game to a far greater level than was seen during the 2009-10 season. The time for excuses, particularly for the recipient of $62.4 million contract, no longer holds weight.
It’s a commonly known fact that legitimate number one centers don’t grow on trees. There might be anywhere from 10-12 bona fide first-line centers in the NHL. And the Blue Jackets haven’t done a great job of developing/acquiring one of their own over the organization’s first decade.
But let’s take a look at the centers Nash has been paired with, particularly during the past few seasons:
2007-08 and the majority of the 2008-09 season – Manny Malhotra
2008-09 (after Vermette was acquired at the March 4, 2009 NHL trade deadline) and the entire 2009-10 season – Antoine Vermette
With no disrespect to Malhotra, a guy whose absence has been sorely missed, Vermette, while perhaps a second line center, is a massive upgrade offensively over Nash’s previous centering partner, which can be summarized as follows:
Malhotra (131 total games): 19 goals – 37 assists – 56 total points.
Vermette (99 total games): 34 goals – 44 assists – 78 total points
In order to try to justify the claim that Nash has never had a suitable center, Nash’s center’s point totals would have had to either stay the same or drop. However, on a points/game basis, Malhotra’s total points/game percentage was 43% while Vermette’s total points/game percentage was 79%.
While Nash and Vermette jelled quite nicely for the 2008-2009 playoff push, Vermette then recognized his career-best point totals of 65 total points during 2009-10, Nash recognized a 12-point drop – from a career-best 79 points in 2008-09 to 67 points in 2009-10 – during the very same season, with the identical first-line partners (Kristian Huselius is the other member of the Blue Jackets top line).
And Nash’s goals scored went from 38 to 40 goals from 2007-08 to 2008-09, but they dropped to 33 in 2009-10.
Add to that the Blue Jackets team point-total drop from 92 points during the 2008-09 season to 79 points during the 2009-10 season, and it’s not hard to correlate the drops in Nash’s performance to that of his team.
If you’re “scoring at home,” that’s a 13-point drop in total Blue Jacket team points against a 12-point and seven-goal drop for Nash. And, for a team whose record in overtime and shootouts went from 11-10 in 2008-09 to 5-15 in 2009-10, having Nash return to his 2008-09 form is paramount for the Blue Jackets to have any legitimate chance at returning to the playoffs.
From a financial perspective, Nash’s drop in production is a concern. Nash is currently the 16th highest paid player in the NHL; however, he was 36th in total points scored during the 2009-10 season.
Beyond the numbers – scoring and financial, however, is a concern that does draw scrutiny from Blue Jacket fans and that is Nash’s propensity for going through lengthy scoring droughts. When the Blue Jackets went into their 3-14-7 spiral for the period from November 21, 2009 through January 16, 2010, Nash scored seven goals and 12 assists (24 games) whereas Nash scored 14 goals and registered 11 assists during the Blue Jackets’ 12-6-2 start.
Over the course of the prior two seasons, when you analyze the relationship to Nash scoring to the Blue Jackets success, the correlation is almost purely linear.
It has often been said that, in order for the Blue Jackets to become an upper-tier NHL team, that Nash should not be its best player. One of the top two or three, sure, but not its best player. The Blue Jackets organization have slowly built the team to provide secondary scoring and a new system designed for success today’s NHL, but, until that day arrives, Nash must be the key to its success.