I’ll mention this later, but just so we’re clear upfront: I like what was returned for Nash, the trade was a sensible one. It’s even easy to argue that the Blue Jackets came out ahead, statistically. But this isn’t entirely logical. I hope you’ll stick through this odd post.
I like numbers. I always have. I was that weird kid in high school who found a strange satisfaction from solving problem sets, and I continue to find a sort of enjoyment from equations. I find numbers (and math in general) to be relieving because they follow rules and even if they manage to surprise, you can probably tease out some kind of causality.
The numbers should be of some comfort. The numbers tell me that I should be relieved. $7.8 million, -0.1, they’re gone. Or maybe it’s better to look at +8.8 and +2.9. But somehow I’m just left dissatisfied.
I was late to following hockey. Like most televised athletic events, I just didn’t care about following along. A bunch of jocks running (or skating) around didn’t seem important. It wasn’t until going to college and seeing live games on a regular basis that I really started to fall in love with the sport. The speed, the intensity, the rabid fanbase and being a part of the fan experience all managed to sway me in less than a season. Even now, college hockey is still my favorite version of the game. Of course, it helped having friends who were NHL fans; their input suddenly got me to follow the professional version, first watching playoff games and eventually regular season games.
In a fairly complicated origin story (one that I won’t share here) I eventually ended up following the Blue Jackets. Theoretically I qualify as a bandwagon fan; I first started seriously following Columbus in the playoff season. But it was so easy to like them. Their tale of failure-to-playoffs was simple to gravitate toward and the idea of an upstart team facing off against the league-standard Red Wings was pretty intriguing. In my mind, it made a lot of sense for someone new to the game to follow the newest team in the league. And being that I didn’t really feel any geographic connection to the New York teams, it was an easy assimilation.
But above all else (the upstart thing, the excellent sweaters), there was a single player who drew me in. He was at once physically imposing, and absurdly skilled. My still-forming grasp on the game was quick to follow his movements, to watch his possession skills, and his deadly wrister. In essence, he personified everything that I had grown to enjoy about hockey (up to that point). A blend of size, unthinkable skating speed, and puck talent that I couldn’t begin to wrap my head around.
I felt like such a little kid singling out just one player. It was probably the first time since my extreme youth in Utah that I had decided to entirely elevate the importance of one player above all others in a sport (John Stockton of the Jazz was the other). It’s not that he was necessarily the best in the NHL (at that time that was pretty obviously Crosby or Ovechkin), but he was the one who did the best for my team the one who helped draw me further into the game of hockey.
It was an easy and obvious choice: Rick Nash quickly became my favorite player in the NHL.
Rick Nash is not as good as you think he is. In saying this, any idea that the Blue Jackets somehow lost the Nash trade is inaccurate. Nash is not an ultrastar and has an albatross of a contract. And contrary to perhaps his most visible role, Rick Nash is not always that guy you saw in the Olympics. Corey S of NHL Numbers highlighted some of these concepts in a Rick Nash Facts article a month ago. Some of the highlights of his work and a few things I covered during NashWatch include:
Nash is not a prime age player and is on the wrong side of performance vs age. Nash was not the most productive points per 60 minutes even strength or power play performer (given reasonable ice time) on his own team last season (those honors go to Vinny Prospal and Derrick Brassard, respectively). Nash’s point totals have declined every year since the playoffs. Rick Nash faced particularly stiff quality of competition last year and failed to be a net positive shot producer.
That’s a mildly blistering appraisal of the guy, and a bit unfortunate given his excellent goal-scoring propensity (he is, after all, only one of five players with 6 or more seasons of 30+ goals post-lockout). But the point is that Nash is not the ultrastar the media and other fans have sometimes made him out to be. The last part on the list is particularly damning to that reputation: Nash doesn’t perform well when facing strong competition. His relative Corsi was a meager -0.1 this season, a far cry from the sort of performance you’d expect from a dominant forward. Rick Nash is not on the same level as a Sidney Crosby.
Excepting this past season, it’s difficult to make an argument that any single player on the Blue Jackets team has been better than Rick Nash. But considering the kind of “heights” Nash reached, perhaps that speaks more to the weakness of the franchise than the excellence of the player. Add in a $7.8 million cap hit and the whole package became even harder to sell.
It’s no wonder there were no elite forward prospects returned, especially when guys like Kreider or Skinner aren’t that far away from passing the aging Nash. These kind of players should have never been in the conversation and it’s unrealistic for fans or the media to be disappointed that they weren’t part of the trade.
My favorite player galvanized my feelings against Scott Howson. It’s something I first chronicled in a FanPost over at The Cannon. When Rick Nash was revealed to have asked for a trade, my view was quite clear: my favorite player wanted out and the guy who manged to screw it up needed to go first. The PR blunder of announcing Nash’s request and the panicked reaction to Jeff Carter’s unhappiness were just unbearable. So I said, “Rick Nash is now a rallying point for those who are tired of the deep, organizational problems of the Blue Jackets and the false belief that the GM is somehow doing the right thing.”
It’s perhaps the purest blind-fandom-driven thing I’ve written. Looking at it now, it’s a bit forced, but something I still stand by. Nash being moved means that years of promised fixes and a push for the playoffs were complete nonsense. No one player (short of a completely out-of-his-mind goalie) can do enough to drag a team to the top, and Nash was left alone. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t even elite, but he was practically all we had. And him wanting to leave didn’t mean abandoning the Blue Jackets or the fans, it meant he wanted out of the cycle of doom, out of being the only first line forward on a team.
And I’m sure that my blind support for Nash leaves me biased here, but I don’t blame him for wanting out.
Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are seriously underrated. If you believe the MSM idea that Columbus was fleeced, you’re not giving credit to two really good forwards. Dubinsky’s relative Corsi was an excellent +8.8 while facing +0.852 Corsi relative quality of competition. Anisimov was also a positive against reasonable opponents (+2.9 versus +0.508). These are both net positive players to a team, whereas Rick Nash could only reach +5.9 against +0.436 competition in his best year. Translation: Dubinsky is more effective at shot and scoring chance differentials than the best of Rick Nash against harder competition.
But maybe you like point totals rather than shot differentials. Even strength points per 60 minutes saw Rick Nash with 1.89. But Anisimov and Dubinsky had 1.72 and 1.45, respectively. That’s not the kind of huge dropoff in production that sources like ESPN’s Scott Burnside would have you believe. Give Anisimov more ice time and he’s likely to approach the Nash counting number totals. If that happens, the trade suddenly stops being an outright bust.
And those two alone are seemingly a positive addition to the Blue Jackets. Add in a a late first round draft pick and a potential first pairing d-man in Tim Erixon? Seriously: the guy was the Rangers’ top prospect, after all. I fail to see where the negativity comes from. Well… except I do.
My favorite hockey player no longer plays for my favorite team. It’s a strange feeling, and it makes me feel entirely foolish. After all, it’s a bit dumb to be so invested in a single player. And logically, the trade is a good one. At the very least, the team is no worse than it was before the trade and it’s easy to argue that the Blue Jackets came out slightly ahead on this one, a remarkable feat given Nash’s declining value and the cap hit involved. But he is my favorite player, after all. I should want a massive return, a new rising star. Instead the team lacks any first line talent.
Moreover, it’s a shame that Nash even had to ask for a trade. Under an effective general manager, with enough skill players, with a good team identity, with goalies that weren’t among the league’s worst, and with coaching that didn’t misuse talent, the Blue Jackets didn’t have to fail. But instead, everything fell apart. The drafting was ineffective, the trades were not substantial enough to fix the problems, the defense is highly overrated, and the goalies were never dealt with.
I look forward to seeing Rick Nash succeed with a good team (and the Rangers are certainly a very good team). But I wonder if the Blue Jackets have skill enough in the short- and medium-term to turn into a good team, even after a solid trade of their best player. I look forward to the day Columbus returns to the playoffs, but I don’t know if I see it in the cards yet… and that wait is just a bit more painful by no longer having one of the reasons I chose to follow professional hockey in the first place.
Make no mistake, I continue to be a Blue Jackets fan. But this inevitable, reasonable, and regrettable trade has changed the team for better and for worse. And of course that statement doesn’t make logical sense, but being a fan of a sports team doesn’t necessarily make sense either.