What makes a player worthy of being deemed a first-class NHL star? For goalies and defensemen, numbers don’t always tell the story. Grant Fuhr, for example, never had a great goals-against average, but he stopped the right pucks at the right time and has the wins and Stanley Cups to back up his Hall of Fame clout.
But star forwards need to put up numbers. Even the best two-way players – Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg tend to roll off the tongue quickly – can put up 90-plus points in a season.
Which brings us to Rick Nash, savior of Columbus. Maybe those of us who watched him grow will always think of Nash as a youngster, but the captain of the Blue Jackets is now in the prime of his career. Though he hasn’t tallied 80 points in a season yet, I believe this is the year we’ll see it happen.
To date, Nash has been denied that offensive plateau for a number of reasons. Early on in his career, he simply didn’t have enough talent surrounding him to help along the way. Back in 2003-04, when the powerful left winger rang up 41 goals en route to sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk, his teammates included David Vyborny and Nik Zherdev. Nash had 57 total points that year, which was tops on the Jackets.
Of course, those were the dog days in Columbus. Since Ken Hitchcock and Scott Howson took over as the coach-GM combo, Nash has seen the crowd around him get a lot more exclusive. R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette joined the fray last season, though only Huselius was brought in to put up numbers.
The result of the tweaking was Columbus’ first-ever foray into the playoffs and though the season ended in a dismal sweep (courtesy rival Detroit), the franchise looked to have found its niche: defensive hockey buttressed by Steve Mason in net and opportunistic offense from Nash and friends.
In other words, a lot of nail-biting 2-1 wins. Nash posted a career-high 79 points, but Huselius was the only other Jacket to break the 50-point barrier.
While I don’t expect Columbus to deviate its winning strategy this season, I do see more numbers coming for the Blue Jackets. The key will be the kids.
Derick Brassard looks like Nash’s center this season and based on the way the Quebec League product played before his campaign-ending shoulder injury in 2008-09, this is a match made in heaven. Brassard is a playmaking maestro and has the elite stock to put up big points in the NHL.
I also think Jake Voracek and Nikita Filatov will take big steps this year. Both have dazzling arrays of talent and a full year of the North American pro game under their belts. The mere threat of their arsenals alleviates pressure from Nash, who will then be freed up to create more of his own artistry (such as 2007’s “Man with Finn on his back” from the World Championship).
Nash has increased his point total every season since the lockout. With Columbus confident and more offensively balanced, I think we can finally see the power forward hit the numbers players of his skill level are capable of posting.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly throughout the off-season, his column - The Straight Edge - on Fridays, and his prospect feature - The Hot List - on Tuesdays.
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