By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
The saddest part of the Rick Nash saga is that he has never been a bigger name than he is right now. He has scored 30 goals six times, 40 twice. He has won an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada. But he has appeared in only four NHL playoff games, and now his Columbus Blue Jackets – far behind the field, even in an era of parity – are considering trading him for assets they can use to rebuild the team. All you hear is Rick Nash, Rick Nash, Rick Nash.
There are two main reasons why Nash could go before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET Monday: if he wants out, and if he and the Jackets want this to end as soon as possible. Nash has always said all the right things, but it is possible to love Columbus, want to win there and realize you're better off elsewhere, all at the same time.
Did the Jackets approach Nash about the possibility of waiving his no-movement clause, or did he really approach them and want to keep it quiet? Doesn't matter. He said he was open to it. The Jackets abruptly went from saying he was untouchable to listening to offers for him. Word got out. A circus ensued, and that has put pressure on everyone involved.
I tried to ask Joe Thornton if he could relate to what Nash is going through. He and Nash are friends, having played together in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout and for Team Canada at the 2006 and '10 Olympics. They also share some similarities. Both were drafted No. 1 overall – Thornton by the Boston Bruins in 1997, Nash by the Blue Jackets in 2002. Thornton was 26 when the Bruins traded him to the San Jose Sharks; Nash is 27 now. Thornton was the captain in Boston; Nash is the captain in Columbus.
But Thornton cut me off before I even finished the question – "No, not at all" – and his reasoning might say a lot. Of all the differences between them, Thornton referenced the fact that he went to the playoffs five times in seven seasons with the Bruins before he was traded.
"I really don't know what he's going through, because we were in the playoffs in Boston every year," Thornton said. "I'm sure he wants to get to the playoffs at some point in his career. He's a fantastic player, and I think anybody would give up a boatload to get him."
The Jackets are counting on receiving a boatload in return. Their reported asking price is a significant roster player, two prospects and a first-round pick. Apparently they aren't budging, and they shouldn't.
Talk to people around the league – from GMs to assistant GMs to scouts – and most seem to think Nash won't go, or at least shouldn't go, until the summer. More teams will have the flexibility to add a star to their roster and a $7.8 million salary-cap hit to their ledger. More teams will be in the mix. The Jackets will have a much better chance at striking their best deal, and Nash won't be rushed into making a decision that will affect him not just for the next few months, but through the end of his contract in 2017-18.
But what if the Sharks are willing to make another bold move now? What if the New York Rangers are willing to risk upsetting their chemistry to land the scorer they need? What if the Philadelphia Flyers put together a package of top young players? What if the Los Angeles Kings are desperate? What if the Jackets lower their price just a little, and what if Nash is even more ready to go than when this all started?
Teams might prefer to do this deal in the summer, but if they feel their only chance is now – and if they fear Nash might end up with a direct competitor – they might go for it. Buyers don't decide when a rare talent is available, and they can pounce only when one is. As Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said: "The sellers can sometimes dictate [the timing of moves] if they're going to put a guy on the market or not."
And make no mistake: Nash is a rare talent.
"He brings a great 1-on-1 threat," said Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz. "I mean, he is hard to contain. There are few forwards that have the ability to do something special by themselves all the time. [Pavel] Datsyuk can do it. Nash can do it. … Anybody who gets Rick Nash is going to be better."
No, we haven't seen Nash in many playoff games or pressure situations in the NHL, but he played pretty well at the Olympics under the spotlight in Vancouver. No, he has never cracked 80 points, and he has surpassed 70 only once. But he's a goal-scorer, not a playmaker, and hasn't had a strong supporting cast. Imagine if he played with an elite passer like Thornton.
"If anybody watches him or knows hockey, he's very dynamic – top-end skill," Thornton said. "He's probably one of the best left wingers in the game right now. … Who knows if it will happen now or in the summertime or if ever? When you trade a player like that, he really is the face of that franchise. I don't know what will happen, but it will be interesting."
The trade deadline can't come fast enough for the Colorado Avalanche. Listen to defenseman Kyle Quincey, who went from the Avs to the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Detroit Red Wings in a three-way trade on Tuesday.
"Everyone is ready to get shipped out any day," Quincey said. "There's a lot of guys, their bags are packed beside the door, and they wouldn't be unhappy to go – trust me. I know I had a big smile on my face, and all the guys were jealous. I think there's a bunch of guys that were pissed off they weren't in a package deal."
And why is that?
Quincey said a lot of guys feel they "aren't getting their opportunity" in Colorado. But mostly he talked about players wanting a chance to win and the insecurity players can have at this time of year. Coming off a 4-1 victory over the Kings on Wednesday night, the Avs are only two points out of a playoff spot. But the Avs are 11th in the West, and if you're traded, you could end up … anywhere. You could move up in the standings, like Quincey did, or you could go down.
Players often say they ignore trade rumors, and some do. But it's hard to ignore the newspapers, Internet and television when your name is popping up all the time. On one hand, Quincey said he didn't expect to be traded and was happy in Colorado. On the other, he said he was bringing his biggest suitcase on the Avs' upcoming trip to Columbus and Detroit, knowing the deadline was coming and he might have to ship off to parts unknown.
"There's guys that have been talked about for two, three weeks – and I was, too, right?" Quincey said. "That's all I'm saying. With guys getting talked about all the time, your mindset kind of changes. It's tough there because they're in a dogfight. When you get talked about every day, it kind of wears on you. You start thinking, 'Where am I going?' "
A big contributing factor in Colorado: Only seven players are signed beyond this season – forwards Paul Stastny,Gabriel Landeskog and Chuck Kobasew, defensemen Jan Hejda and Ryan O'Byrne and goaltenders Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Semyon Varlamov. The rest are pending restricted or unrestricted free agents.
Even forward Ryan O'Reilly, the Avs' leading scorer, hasn't received an extension. He is in the last year of his entry-level deal, making $900,000.
"I truly believe, if you have confidence in a player, then give it to them, show it to them," Quincey said. "When there's so much uncertainty if those guys are going to be there next year, it would be nice for guys to get extensions. But that's their policy, and that's what they do."
Quincey paused, then added: "Confidence, it comes and goes, and when it goes, it's pretty tough to get it back."
The two general managers under the most pressure to make moves before the trade deadline have to be the Kings' Dean Lombardi and the Washington Capitals' George McPhee.
Both lead franchises that have never won the Stanley Cup. Both have been on the job long enough – Lombardi since 2006, McPhee since 1997. Both entered the season with high expectations, both fired their coach after a disappointing start, and both are still on the playoff bubble. The Kings are eighth in the West. The Caps are 10th in the East, two points behind the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Kings' need is obvious: an offensive winger. They have what should be an outstanding 1-2-3 punch at center with Anze Kopitar,Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll, and they have what should be offensive pop from the blue line in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. But they are less than the sum of their parts, dead-last in the league in offense, and it isn't because of former coach Terry Murray's defensive approach, apparently. New coach Darryl Sutter hasn't opened it up.
Finding a solution will be easier said than done. Lombardi made a big move at the deadline last year, acquiring right winger Dustin Penner from the Edmonton Oilers. But Penner contributed only two goals in 19 games down the stretch and one goal in six playoff games, and he has only five goals in 44 games this season. What is Lombardi going to do now, add Ales Hemsky, another Oilers underachiever?
The most intriguing scenarios involve Nash and Jackets center Jeff Carter, who has been unhappy in Columbus but might be glad to rejoin his buddy Richards. But would the Kings pay the price for Nash, and would the Kings want to risk a Richards-Carter reunion, knowing that the Flyers traded both of them on the same day last summer partly because of off-ice issues?
Finding a solution might be even more difficult for the Capitals, who have gone from an entertaining and successful regular-season team, to a team that tried to tighten up defensively because of playoff failures, to a total disaster.
The players supposedly quit on Bruce Boudreau, so he had to go. In came Dale Hunter, the hardnosed Capitals legend who was supposed to bring his attitude to the team, but he has seemed uncomfortable in the NHL and likely to return to coach his junior team, the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
While injuries have been an issue – Mike Green just returned, Nicklas Backstrom is out with a concussion – they don't explain why Alex Ovechkin continues to flounder, why Alex Semin continues to be a mystery, why this team just doesn't compete sometimes.
The Capitals lost to the last-place Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night, 5-0. Owner Ted Leonsis called it unacceptable in his blog afterward. Then the Caps looked listless in a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night. "There is a lot to do," Leonsis blogged. That, there is.
Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford never used to negotiate contracts during the season. Now suddenly he has re-signed two pending unrestricted free agents instead of parlaying them as rentals. First, he gave defenseman Tim Gleason a four-year, $16 million extension. Then, he gave winger Tuomo Ruutu four years and $19 million.
His change of heart reflects changes in the NHL. Players used to hit unrestricted free agency at age 31. Now they hit it at age 27. So teams have been locking up their own players, which means fewer good players are reaching unrestricted free agency, which means those that do end up commanding higher prices. Gleason and Ruutu are both 29.
"We're finding out that there's less players that get to free agency that can replace players that we don't re-sign," Rutherford said. "But the biggest difference, what I've done this year compared to other years, is these two free agents are still in their 20s. It's not that we've let other players go that aren't good players, but you know, they are older players, and they sign longer-term contracts, and I'm a little bit more cautious of what happens to the player in the full length of the contract."
Asked how hard he thought it would have been to find equivalent players at the same prices in free agency, Rutherford said: "It would be difficult – almost impossible. Both with Tim and Tuomo, they're both special types of players. They bring some things that are hard to find, and quite frankly, trying to find replacements for either one of these guys might take up to five years and you still might not be able to find that type of player. These two guys are very important to our future."
And Rutherford thinks the Hurricanes have a bright future in today's NHL. They're last in the East, but thanks to the salary cap and points for overtime losses, they're only eight points behind the eighth-place Leafs. They have rebounded from a poor first half, when captain Eric Staal struggled and young star Jeff Skinner sat out with a concussion.
"I think it's an overall picture of the league," Rutherford said. "It's not just about the Hurricanes. There's so much parity in the league, and when you lose one or two players and go through a little bit of a bad spell, you can drop down pretty quick. But it works the other way, too. When your younger players get a little more mature, you add one or two players, you can take a jump up pretty quick."
The Hurricanes need to add at least one more piece.
"I've said it for a couple years now – and I may be saying it for another year – but we're trying to find another real good player to play with Eric Staal," Rutherford said. "And if we could find that one real good player – whether it's through a trade or in free agency – I feel that our team is going to take a big step forward and be a real good team again."
1. Detroit Red Wings: They had won 23 straight at home heading into Thursday night’s game against Vancouver. They sit atop the standings. And they just fortified their defense with Quincey. "Right now Detroit's the best team in the league," one NHL scout said. "There's no doubt in my mind – or anybody's mind – they're the best team. They're going to be the team to beat."
2. Vancouver Canucks: It's amazing that the Canucks' playoff fortunes could rest on the health of Byron Bitz, but here we are. The oft-injured tough guy has missed two games with a sore hip. If the Canucks aren't sure he can hold up, they might have to make a move to add bite before the deadline.
3. New York Rangers: Jeremy Lin has made the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row. The Rangers had to take out an ad in Newsday touting Henrik Lundqvist as "Linqvist." In New York, the media capital of the world, one of the NHL's best players isn't getting the attention he deserves. Insanity.
4. Nashville Predators: Too bad Nash can't end up in Nashville. Beyond the obvious marketing potential with his name, he could continue to be a quiet star in a small market, and he could fill an important gap for a good team. The Predators have the assets, but Columbus would be crazy to trade Nash within the Central Division and have him haunt them for years to come. Oh, and Nash would have to agree to go to Nashville, picking the Preds over everyone else.
5. St. Louis Blues: The Blues have been so good, a couple of losses have put their run in perspective. Wednesday night's 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins was their first regulation loss at home since Dec. 3, ending an 18-0-3 run. Combined with Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, it marked their first back-to-back regulation losses since Oct. 28-30 – before coach Ken Hitchcock was hired.
6. New Jersey Devils: Interesting statistic from NHL.com's Dave Lozo: Taking the second half of last season and the second half of this season, the Devils have earned 85 points in 59 games. The league-leading Red Wings had 84 points in 61 games this season.
25. Buffalo Sabres:Paul Gaustad could be a decent rental for a contender, adding size and faceoff prowess to the bottom six, and could be moved by 3 p.m. ET Monday. But at this point, Sabres GM Darcy Regier is trying to re-sign him and still hasn't given up on the playoffs.
26. New York Islanders: Just when you want to believe the Isles could make a magical run to the playoffs, they get waxed by Ottawa, 6-0, and lose to Buffalo, 2-1, on back-to-back nights. It's time to sell.
27. Carolina Hurricanes: With Joni Pitkanen expected to return from a concussion soon, ’Canes GM Jim Rutherford said he could rent out one of two defensemen: Jaroslav Spacek or Bryan Allen. Both are pending unrestricted free agents. Spacek has a limited no-trade clause; Allen has does not have trade protection. "That decision won't be made until Sunday," Rutherford said. "We haven't made a 100-percent decision." Rutherford said he is not trying to re-sign either at this point.
28. Montreal Canadiens: If Andrei Kostitsyn's value is going up, it's only because the number of available forwards is going down. He has no goals in his past 10 games. He has only two goals in his past 26 games.
29. Edmonton Oilers: Pretty much the same for Ales Hemsky, another pending unrestricted free agent. He has only five goals this season – and only one in his past 17 games. Yes, he also has nine points in his past 11 games, and he has never been a prolific goal-scorer. But if you're looking for offensive help for a long playoff run, is he really that attractive?
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: It's a nice thought, but no, these are not the Jackets they were supposed to be all along. Yes, they're 5-3-1 in their past nine games, but the pressure is off. Yes, they blew out the Sharks on Tuesday night, 6-3, but the Sharks didn't show up. Much too little, much too late.
PLUS:Erik Karlsson has been incredible for the surprising Ottawa Senators. The 21-year-old leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 60 points – 20 more than anyone else. A little credit goes to his partner, 35-year-old vet Filip Kuba. Not only should the Sens keep the pending unrestricted free agent for the playoff push, they should re-sign him. "You take that away from Karlsson, and then all of a sudden everything's mass confusion on the team," said an NHL scout.
PLUS:Logan Couture has nine goals and 19 points in his past 14 games for the struggling Sharks. No wonder Wilson reportedly refused to consider including the 22-year-old center in a package for Nash. "I'm trying to be as consistent as I can be, every night try to help the team out in some way," Couture said. "If I play the way I can, points will come eventually."
MINUS: A sign of the times: As soon as Sharks forward Joe Pavelski took a puck in the side of the head Sunday while trying to block a shot against the Red Wings, the thought of a concussion popped into his mind. That was a good thing, but only in a twisted way. "You realize that, 'I just got hit in the head with the puck,' " said Pavelski afterward, with a welt below his left ear. "If you are concussed, maybe you won't think that."
PLUS: Tweet from @2ndBestHull – a.k.a. Brett Hull – on Monday: "Don't be surprised to see upsets this playoff season. #allteamsgreat." Despite the scuffling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, teams are so evenly matched that the playoffs could be especially unpredictable.
MINUS: The Sidney Crosby counter is at 32 games. Though the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins is skating, the clock is ticking. As soon as the trade deadline passes, more attention will focus on whether Crosby can – or should – return from his concussion this season.
“Trade rumors are like stock tips. If info is public, it likely is already old to real insiders.”
If you hear about it, it probably won't happen. If it happens, you probably didn't hear about it.