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Revisiting the Rick Nash saga, events that led to trade, and what if he never left?

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What if the Blue Jackets didn’t trade Rick Nash? Well for one thing, the preceding events that led up to the trade spans years of what-ifs and botched moments.

Detroit Red Wings v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

What if the Columbus Blue Jackets never traded Rick Nash? Some of you will need to pop your eyeballs back into your head. If you right away go back to the summer of 2012 when Nash was traded to the New York Rangers, and have it stuck in your head that the first true star in Blue Jackets history was only in the wrong to possibly want out of Columbus, or the only culpable person in this scenario, I’m going to sum up the sequence of events that play into Nash ultimately wanting to leave. And why he wasn’t wrong, followed by the alternate reality in which no. 61 actually stays in Columbus.

The early Nash years

The Blue Jackets barely constituted a mediocre franchise, by mediocre, subpar standards.

One playoff appearance against the once mighty and defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings in 2009, turned into a four-game sweep, represent the highest of highs for the Blue Jackets-Nash era, and largely the franchise as a whole for the better part of their first decade of NHL existence.

Conceived in 1997 and born in time for the 2000 season, Ken Hitchcock was the first coach to lead the team to the Stanley Cup playoffs and Nash represented the one true star the team had drafted, developed, and cultivated. Doug MacLean doesn’t get much credit for his part with the team on the ice, but drafting Nash was a no-brainer in 2002.

The franchise acquired talents like Sergei Federov on the back-end of his career, signed Adam Foote, who was the eventual captain before bolting rather unceremoniously via trade and who preceded Nash as captain just weeks later in 2008. The team always lacked that true first-line center and it was often speculated what that could do for the team and Nash, as he was by far the teams’ best, and singular, offensive weapon.

NHL Awards Portraits Photo By Silvia Pecota/Getty Images

Nash won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy in a three-way tie with Ilya Kovulchuk and Jarome Iginla in the 2003-04 season, scoring 41 goals. That franchise record for goals was tied in 2018-19 by Cam Atkinson. While the Blue Jackets could boast some really nice players during the Nash years, it was the worst-kept secret that his best years were basically wasted, and that the team lacked the true depth and linemates needed to carry his team through to a deep playoff run.

Trying to find help

Being matched up against the Red Wings in 2009 didn’t do them any favors. Finally, in the summer of 2011, now-GM Scott Howson worked his magic to get his team the coveted center they needed, the kind of help Nash could use to help generate offense and add to the scoring attack.

Except that guy, former Flyer Jeff Carter, promptly went into a sort of depression-hiding, and wouldn’t speak publicly on the trade, basically giving the it’s-not-you-it’s-me routine until Howson and Nash went to visit Carter. Carter’s half-season in Columbus was obviously the disaster you’d expect after how the summer drama played out, and let’s face it, nothing easy ever comes for the Jackets.

Though Carter had some nice games, such as a hat trick in the game against the San Jose Sharks right before his move to Los Angeles, and subsequently being along the ride for that year’s Stanley Cup champion Kings team, a broken foot and separated shoulder also marred Carter’s Blue Jackets half-year tenure.

And I suppose the Carter deal going south was more on Carter and the circumstances that led into that, from his side of things, and not necessarily on Howson and the Blue Jackets — though the combustible aftermath of how things went further lends credence to the overall ineptitude by the franchise to give Nash the proper support, following a long-lingering theme.

So of course Carter was dealt for Jack Johnson that 2011-12 season and for Nash, it meant more uncertainty and probably wondering when things would eventually bounce the Blue Jackets’ way. I mean, as a fan, who didn’t think this themselves?

Former Jackets thriving elsewhere

Jakub Voracek, who was traded to Philadelphia in the Carter deal, evolved into a star as did the draft pick that turned out to be Sean Couturier. (Draft picks were never really Columbus’ forte. Aside from Nash).

By this time, Nash had already signed his eight-year contract extension, but the team could never shake the one-dimensional offensive vibe they gave off. By this juncture I’m realizing all over again just how brutal this franchise truly was.

The last half-decade or so has finally shown the Jackets make strides in drafting and development with certain key players — Pierre-Luc Dubois is finally the kind of center the Jackets needed and let’s not get into who the experts thought they should have drafted instead — and management has provided some hope amid the kind of fortuitous luck all teams need here or there.

I can get why Nash was viewed as the bad guy for ultimately seeking his way out, even if his truest, sincerest thoughts weren’t exactly admitted by him during the sequence of events leading up to the trade.

His official words as transcribed by The Columbus Dispatch in Q&A form back in 2011: “I was informed by management that there was a rebuild, a reshape, of the team, and I personally felt I could be a huge part of that, toward bringing assets in. I think that was in my view that was the best thing for the team, the organization, and personally for my career.”

Another rebuild? Figure it out already!

I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to be part of another rebuild and I also thought it was in the best interest for both player and team to part ways. The team could probably do better by the parts that would be acquired by Nash in going forward.

And later, the move for Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky helped spur the Blue Jackets resurgence.

But what if the team never traded Nash? Would disgruntlement have boiled over and ultimately soured Nash to the fan base and franchise even more? Maybe he doesn’t ultimately come back as ‘special assistant to general manager’ Jarmo Kekäläinen.

New York Rangers v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Maybe Nash cops to the ‘good soldier’ role that apparently some in the fan base think he should have and willingly accepted more losing amid a rebuild. I guess in the end Nash’s Blue Jackets tenure would never appear sour to some if he just never said anything, and just looked to play and win games as a Blue Jacket. If he ended up being traded, it could be viewed as the consensus obvious choice for a team needing to scrap talent for future considerations.

You can also point out that the remaining money moved off the payroll at the time of the 2012 trade (still north of $40 million overall) was just reinvested in the later summer trades for Brandon Saad who ultimately recouped Artemi Panarin in the following years.

For me, the way the Nash trade ultimately played out, and the reasons that may or may not have drove it, is a mere footnote.

You’re mad because he ultimately left? Or are you mad because he didn’t come right out and say in bold 10-point font ‘Just trade me now’?

The deal needed to be made. Nash was ready to depart, maybe sooner than it actually played out. Maybe he could have been moved for even more of a package. That also plays into Howson reading the room and determining when to pull the trigger at the best time, factoring in Nash’s no-trade clause and where he'd actually accept a trade to. It was also Nash’s right to utilize his no-trade.

In the very first (lockout shortened) season post-Nash in 2012-13, we began to see the next era of the Jackets, as ushered in by Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning form brewing in net, and a Columbus team that ultimately just missed out on the playoffs. They were +1 in goal-differential that season and if Nash is on the team, they might make the playoffs and then with a hot goalie who knows?

Revisionist history can go anywhere you want it.


If Nash never left and stayed with Columbus?

Despite rampant trade rumors, the Blue Jackets keep Nash and they eventually hit the ice in January 2013 after the lockout ends.

Would the Jackets still trade for Marián Gáborík at that season’s trade deadline? Gáborík was recovering from off-season shoulder surgery heading into the season, and perhaps he stays in Broadway without having to worry about Nash stealing his thunder.

As exciting as 2012-13 was, there’s now a feeling that the Blue Jackets are contenders after all. And 2013-14 of course was the season in which Columbus and Pittsburgh battled to a grueling six-game series that saw the teams trade leads back and forth. Brandon Dubinsky scored six points in the series and his game-four game-tying goal with 22.5 seconds left in the third period helped propel Nick Foligno’s eventual game-winner in overtime.

You’ll remember Foligno was acquired by the Senators for defenseman Marc Methot shortly after Nash was traded to New York 2012 as was Bobrovsky from Philadelphia that summer.

Nash scored three career playoff points — one goal — in four career Blue Jackets playoff games. Does he instead come up with the clutch goal in one of those Penguins playoff games, in place of Dubinsky?

How does ultimately not trading for Anisimov then impact the Saad deal years later who then links to the Panarin trade? Does Nash stay in Columbus throughout the years, largely seeing his talent go wasted or does Columbus still ultimately get to the playoffs and even go further than the first round?

And I’m assuming in this alternate reality that Nash is a happy soldier in Columbus and that there’s no negative consequence with him sticking with the franchise. Can you imagine Nash still on the team when they bring in Dubois and putting Atkinson among the trio?

Nash also just missed out on Ryan Johansen’s Columbus emergence (their careers overlapped in 2011-12, just before Nash left and ‘Ryjo’ took off with 33 goals in 2013-14).

And then you wonder just how much all of the buildup to this point impacts what actually happened at the 2019 trade deadline. For as much as the Blue Jackets ultimately went for it, acquiring Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, keeping Bobrovsky and Panarin, and echoing Kekäläinen’s belief that it was worth it to go for it with the group they had, would Kekäläinen have felt the same tenacity to make such bold moves if Nash stayed on the team and the course of history changed before then?

Do you still hold to it that Nash is some kind of villain because of how things did — or didn’t — play out?

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Rick Nash

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