After months of speculation, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally traded away captain Rick Nash, sending the power forward to the New York Rangers for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick. The return is quite underwhelming, but while Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson will surely get pilloried for making this lopsided trade, it’s important to put the deal into proper context.
First, Nash has never scored more than 79 points in a single NHL season, and it remains to be seen whether he can justify his elite-level cap hit ($7.8 million) playing alongside the likes of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik on the Blueshirts’ first power play unit. He’s certainly performed well with Joe Thornton in Switzerland and for Team Canada, but he’s never really played at a consistently elite level for the duration of an NHL season, and he certainly hasn’t shown the ability to carry a team on his back a la Mark Messier. He might represent a tipping-point addition for the Rangers, who were only a few goals away from a trip to the Cup Finals, but it’s still a bit early for the Rangers to start planning a 2013 parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
In addition to the on-ice concerns, Nash came with a long-term contract that isn’t exactly team-friendly, and so only large-market teams were going to be in the running for the 28-year-old Nash. But making matters worse, Nash’s contract – 8 years and $62.4 million – isn’t exactly a palatable one for a large-market team because it’s back-loaded. The Rangers might have been willing to give up more for Nash if they were paying him $10 million in 2012-13 down to only $6 million in 2017-18 (when Nash will be 33 years old). If Nash’s play goes into decline, a front-loaded contract would’ve made it fairly easy for the Rangers to offload him onto a team looking to reach the payroll floor. But the combination of his $8.2 million salary and $7.8 million cap hit will make Nash virtually untradeable as the contract’s conclusion nears. And of course, it didn’t help matters that Nash demanded a trade at a time when only a handful of teams had both the cap space and financial liquidity to take on his contract.
For the Blue Jackets, this deal is about quantity over quality. They picked up two solid young forwards in Dubinsky and Anisimov and a promising defenseman in Erixon, but it’s hard to imagine any of those players forming the core of a championship contender. Anisimov has game-breaking talent and an absolutely vicious wrist shot, but his lack of consistency made it unlikely that he’d ever emerge as a front-line player on Broadway. Erixon is a highly-touted prospect who’s performed well at the AHL level, but he’s struggled to make the transition to the NHL. And Dubinsky is a hard-working grinder whose lunchpail style will be missed by the Rangers’ blue-collar fans, but it’s clear that Nash likely represents a huge upgrade. Furthermore, the addition of Nash should decrease the value of the Rangers’ pick, making it highly unlikely that they’ll get an impact player late in the first round.
In summary, if everything breaks right, the Blue Jackets gave up arguably their most valuable asset for four depth players. Without question, holding out to try to get a better return for Nash didn’t bear the fruit Howson was hoping to harvest. Instead, the Blue Jackets have dangerously allowed Howson’s impact to extend for another year, further deepening a hole from which the organization might never emerge.
Meanwhile, whereas the early portion of Rangers GM Glen Sather’s time in New York was ugly at best, but he’s turned things around in very impressive fashion. Jettisoning Scott Gomez to Montreal – simultaneously acquiring Ryan McDonagh and freeing the cap space to add Marian Gaborik in the process – was a stroke of genius. In time, the move to land Nash might earn Sather similar accolades. Put simply, it’s highly unlikely that the triumvirate of players (and the draft pick) Sather sent to Columbus will be viewed as too steep a price to pay for one of the NHL’s most talented power forwards. The risk is only on the ledger, and it’s there that the Rangers are consistently amongst the NHL’s mightiest.