After playing only one season with the New York Rangers, Markus Naslund almost certainly didn’t leave a lasting legacy in the Big Apple.
Although he signed a two-year deal with the Blue Shirts last summer, Naslund decided to call it a career with one year left on his contract, after recording a mediocre 46 points in 82 regular season games this past season. The announcement of his retirement may have seemed sudden to some, but not to his longtime teammate, linemate, and friend Brendan Morrison.
“You know what, I’m not completely surprised by it,” said Morrison, who spent seven seasons alongside Naslund with the Vancouver Canucks. “I know the last couple years in Vancouver, he would often talk about when he might pack it in.”
And even after spending 11 full seasons with the Canucks – seven of which he was captain and seven of which he led the team in scoring – some still argue that ‘Nazzy’ – the all-time Canucks points and goals leader – didn’t leave a legacy in Vancouver either. According to Morrison, who knows the Vancouver fan base all too well after growing up in British Columbia and playing with the Canucks for eight seasons, these types of opinions will change over time.
“As years go by, I think people will appreciate him more and more. I think right now there might be a little bit of disappointment from the fans perspective and even from the players’ perspective, in that we didn’t accomplish much in the playoffs. I mean, every time we talk it seems like it comes up how it’s almost a crime that we didn’t do more in the playoffs; that’s our one regret.”
And he’s not kidding.
During Naslund’s lengthy tenure as face of the Canucks franchise, the team recorded a grand total of two playoff series wins – both of which came in the first round – despite a plethora of regular season success. The Canucks captured two Northwest Division titles under Naslund’s reign as captain, but this success rarely translated into the playoffs.
On an individual level, Naslund – a three time First Team All-Star – won the Lester B. Pearson Award and was a Hart Memorial Trophy nominee in 2003, and was widely recognized as one of the elite scorers in the NHL for a three or four year period. Naslund’s best years came when he was playing alongside Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi, the line that was dubbed The West Coast Express. Morrison offers his take as to why the line was so successful.
“It’s one of those things that there was just three players who really gelled. Bert would create a lot of space with his size but he also had the finesse. He could make plays and finish. I think I brought speed to that line, challenging defensemen which would open up holes for those guys to operate. Nazzy was the pure goal scorer on the line. He had the deadly wrist shot. He was a very smart player who always seemed to find the openings and holes where he could get his wrist shot off. I think he was underrated as a playmaker as well. He could make plays probably just as well as he could score goals.”
However, as the team continued to fall short in the post-season, people began to disregard Naslund’s production in the regular season, and questions started to arise about his leadership abilities. He was often criticized for showing a lack of emotion on the ice and for continually spewing the same clichés in the media, which some how, many believed to be representative of his inability to lead. Morrison, however, is quick to defend Vancouver’s first European-born captain.
“I think it’s difficult for people to really get a sense of how a guy leads, the day-to-day dealings with his teammates, when you’re not around a guy every single day. It’s easy to form an opinion when you get a snippet of a guy doing an interview. But Nazzy was a very genuine individual who commanded a lot of respect from his teammates for the way he prepared for games and how serious he took games. His leadership wasn’t very vocal, he wasn’t a rah-rah type of guy, but I think his will to win and the intensity that he showed trying to do his job for the team – which was to score goals and provide offence – rubbed off on other guys.”
One of Morrison’s fondest memories of Naslund came in his first year as captain. In the 2000-01 season, after setting personal highs in goals and points and leading the Canucks to their first playoff appearance since 1996, Naslund suffered a season-ending leg injury in a late season game against the Buffalo Sabres. Without Naslund in the lineup, the Colorado Avalanche proceeded to sweep the Canucks in their first-round series.
“That was a big loss for our team and a real serious injury,” said Morrison. “But the way he committed to his rehab, and got ready for the next season – he came back and had a fabulous season – you know, that speaks volumes about a player’s character.”
Naslund returned from the injury the following season, setting new career highs in points with 90, and goals with 40.
Morrison also mentioned that Naslund’s treatment towards the younger players on the team, the things he did away from the limelight, made him a special captain. Naslund often had younger players over to his house for dinner to try to make them feel welcome and part of the team. And Michael Grabner, who roomed with Naslund during his first professional training camp, can attest to this.
“I was obviously really nervous, being 18 and rooming with one of the superstars in the NHL,” said Grabner, Vancouver’s first round draft pick in 2006. “But he made me feel really comfortable right from the start. He talked to me a lot and took me out for dinners, breakfasts and so on. He told me how everything works and to just play my own style and don’t be nervous, just do what got me here.”
Many believe that Naslund’s career took a turn for the worse when former Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore checked Naslund in the head area with an unpenalized, highly controversial hit on February 16, 2004. Naslund suffered a concussion and a bone chip in his elbow from the hit, which also set off a series of grave events – culminating the next month when Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched Moore from behind, causing three fractured neck vertebrae and effectively ending Moore’s career. Naslund’s level of play was never the same following the Moore incident. While Morrison acknowledged that it certainly had some effect on everyone involved, including Naslund, he could not comment further because the situation remains ongoing.
Despite this unfortunate incident, however, Naslund did indeed leave a lasting legacy in Vancouver – a legacy so strong that Morrison believes Naslund’s number 19 will one day join Stan Smyl’s number 12 and Trevor Linden’s number 16 in the rafters at General Motors Place in Vancouver.
“Yes, no question,” he said without hesitation when asked if Naslund’s number should be retired. “The numbers don’t lie, and he put up tremendous numbers in Vancouver. Again, although we didn’t have as much playoff success as we wanted to, I don’t think we can label this one guy as the sole reason we didn’t accomplish that. You win or lose as a team. No question in my mind, I think there will come a day when his number will be up there.”
And it darn well should be.