Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Crown?

Last night was a perfect example of the bad luck that seems to be chasing Rick Nash and the rest of the Blue Jackets this season. Cutting in against Niklas Backstrom, a rebound hopped onto Nash's stick with a wide open net, he fired a quick snapshot....and Jared Spurgeon managed to thrust his stick into the way just enough to deflect the puck against the goal post instead of the sure-fire goal it appeared to be a split second before.

At this point, Nash sits with 4G, 8A (12) in 17 games - his last point coming on November 10th (an assist), and his last goal back on October 30th vs. Anaheim. The player many expected to be energized by the addition of Jeff Carter for a career year is now on pace for a 57 point season, which would tie his second worst total since the lockout.

Many have claimed that Rick Nash should be stripped of his captaincy. More than a few question if he's living up to his franchise player contract. But it's worth asking if perhaps that very same captaincy, contract, and expectations are a big reason why Nash might be struggling?

When looking at Nash's current stat line, I decided to look for similar players around the NHL off to an equally bad first quarter, and the results I found were rather interesting. While you do see players like Henrik Sedin, Phil Kessel, and Jason Pominville off to a strong clip, there are some surprising names with similar or worse stat lines than Nash, and they all have something in common - a "C" stitched to their sweater.

Eric Staal - Carolina Hurricanes

Like Nash, Staal is a power forward who quickly became the face of his franchise, though unlike Nash he had a chance to inherit the captaincy after a retirement, rather than a trade, and has also seen far more playoff success.

This season, with Carolina struggling at the bottom of the Southeast Division, Staal is 4/4/8 in 18 games, and an NHL worst -17 on the ice, a shocking drop given that Staal has put up an average of 75 points the last five seasons.

Staal is likely also impacted by the emotional issue of his brother Marc's concussion, but you have to wonder if he, like Nash, sees the trials of the team as a personal failure, and tries to compensate.

Ryan Getzlaf - Anaheim Ducks

Another team scraping the bottom of the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks are 2-5-3 in their last 10 games, and the fact that their captain has gone dry since October 27th doesn't help. With only four goals and 5 assists on the season, Getzlaf actually might be a little worse than his stats suggest given that half of his scoring came in two games - a two goal night vs. Phoenix and a two assist night vs. the Blues, both in mid-October.

Jarome Iginla - Calgary Flames

Unlike some of the players we've already highlighted, Iginla at least hit the score sheet recently - he had a goal vs. Colorado on Saturday. But at 5G, 4A in 17 games, he's far below his usual clip - at this time last season Iginla was on a point a game pace.

Iginla is a bit older than some of the peers we've already discussed, but that turns both ways - he has a body of experience that should help to lift his team, but he also may be dealing with the start of a decline in his personal skill.

Daniel Alfredsson - Ottawa Senators

Another member of the older guard, Alfredsson has been a rock for Ottawa since he broke into the league with a 26 goal rookie campaign, but an injury shortened season in 2010-2011 seems to have continued to impact his play this season, where he has 5G, 3A in 13 games. Even in years where his team struggled, Alfredsson generally has been a 70+ point player, but an incredibly poor start for his team included a long hard dry spell for "Alfie", and perhaps it isn't a coincidence that the Senators are starting to scrap their way towards a playoff spot in the East with their captain contributing two goals and an assist in their last 5 games.

Vincent Lecavalier - Tampa Bay Lightning

As captain of a team that was expected to be a major contender in the Southeast division, Lecavalier hasn't been horrible (6G/7A in 17 games), but his scoring has come one dry spell already, and appeared to be on the verge of another before tallying an assist in the Lightning's loss to Winnipeg on Monday. 

Joe Thornton - San Jose Sharks

One of the few captains on this list whose team is in a playoff position, San Jose, much like Columbus, had a slow start to the year before hitting their stride in late October. For Thornton, however, things haven't gone quite so smoothly. Jumbo Joe has 4G, 9A so far this season, but it was October 17th before his first point of the season, and didn't see his first goal until the 21st vs. the Devils. Since scoring vs. LA a little over a week ago, he's been held off the score sheet.

Others In The Club

Though they may not wear a captaincy, there are other NHLers operating under a high level of pressure who have failed to light up the season so far - and while injuries and adjusting to new situations may be part of the concerns, it's still worth noting that they, too, are struggling to help put Nash's season in context.

What to do?

If the burden of the team is impacting Nash (and other, similar players under an equal weight of responsibility), it's too simplistic to say that taking responsibility away would fix the issue. If Rick Nash is in the Columbus locker room, he's going to feel the weight of a losing streak - doubly so if something should affect his position on the club. In fact, I can't think of anything more likely to send Nash into a deeper funk.

A trade, as some have suggested, would be a chance for a fresh setting and new teammates, but I don't think that's a solution yet. Rick has said repeatedly he likes playing in Columbus. The team has built to try and make him successful. Sending him away, unless the return was truly staggering, is not an answer.

There are a few ways I would suggest that the team could help to lift Nash, and perhaps could be equally applied to other teams seeing the same struggles.
  • Moral Support - Much has been made of Nash's "quiet" leadership. Perhaps it's time for his team to offer "quiet" responses. No more talking to the media about needing to work harder. No more "we need to stop squeezing the sticks." No more "we like this group / coaches / etx". Practice harder. Score some goals. Outwork a team. Don't make the captain put the team on his back. Try putting him on yours.
  • Lighten The Load - While I would not say that Nash needs to be scratched (though linemate R.J. Umberger sure seems like he has been heading towards the doghouse), giving the Captain a maintenance day might not be a terrible idea. Instead of getting his head deep into the funk, encourage him to go out, enjoy a quiet day, and perhaps even take the morning skate off and come to the rink with a fresh mind and ready legs before the next game.
  • Play Like A Kid - Perhaps the biggest lesson, and the hardest to communicate, is that the captain may be the face of the franchise, but he's NOT the entire team. It's far too easy for him to internalize the struggles and the frustration and start looking at himself. It's the classic "Am I crazy?" moment that you run into in many struggling workplaces. What Nash needs is for someone (Howson, Arniel, maybe even someone like Vinny Prospal or Wiz) to sit him down and say "Hey, dude. We're here too. Relax." Nash needs to stop feeling like he has to do things alone, and get back to playing with the classic Claude Noel joy. Play your best for yourself, find things to smile about, and do everything you can to win, but don't kill yourself if things don't go your way.
  • Symbiosis - When the captain is happy, the team is likely to be happy. When the captain is scoring, the team's likely more successful. When the team is hot, Nash likely finds it easier to get the puck in the back of the net.  When the captain struggles, the team generally does as well. The Jackets need Rick Nash, but Rick Nash also needs the Jackets. One wonders what a shutout by Steve Mason (or Curtis Sanford) or a big offensive explosion from someone else might do to help him break out.
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