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THN.com Blog: Blue Jackets must find a center for Rick Nash

Rick Nash scored 33 goals and 67 points in 76 games this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Rick Nash scored 33 goals and 67 points in 76 games this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Every summer offers the chance for a post-mortem if you’re one of the 29 teams that fell short of the Stanley Cup, but some teams have more pressing needs than others. For example, the No. 1 goal of the Columbus Blue Jackets is quite clear: Rick Nash needs a top-line center to play with.

No, seriously. For real this time. Serious.

The short history of the Blue Jackets is well known: great ownership, loyal fans, nine seasons, one playoff appearance and zero post-season wins. When the team was at its apex in 2008-09, the Jackets played stifling defense, which complemented the ace goaltending of rookie Steve Mason. Offense wasn’t much of a factor. But when the rest of the NHL came down on Mason this season, the whole strategy kind of fell apart and Columbus sank to 27th in the league, firing coach Ken Hitchcock in the process.

Getting back to Nash, there’s no question he’s an elite NHL talent. During the Olympics, he was fantastic in the medal round playing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards. In three World Championship appearances for Canada, he has 39 points in 27 games, with one gold and two silver medals.

In the NHL, he has yet to crack 80 points in a season.

As I was researching a story for THN’s upcoming fantasy pool book, I came across a rather interesting stat. Going back to 2004, every forward taken first overall in the draft (who had played two NHL seasons) had hit at least 88 points in a season at least once.

Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, who reached the mark this year, is the low man on an impressive totem pole that includes Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos. I wanted to go further back, but Nash – the top pick in 2002 – breaks the chain. Ilya Kovalchuk qualifies, as does Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Thornton. Patrik Stefan, head of the draft vacuum that was 1999, obviously does not.

And not to rub it in, but a lot of first and second overall picks taken since Nash already have Stanley Cup rings – Crosby, Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Eric Staal.

So the task at hand for Columbus GM Scott Howson is to finally bring in an elite pivot who can run with Nash on a consistent basis. Patrick Marleau is the obvious target this summer. The Sharks center can both pass and score, plus he has experience playing with an elite winger in Dany Heatley.

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Marleau can fit under Columbus’ cap right now, assuming the Jackets are willing to spend the money. The fact they compete in one of the toughest divisions in hockey expedites the need. Detroit and Chicago are powerhouses, Nashville almost always finds a way into the playoffs and St. Louis will be dangerous after a transition year.

Options other than Marleau are thin. It’s been suggested Patrick Sharp could be sacrificed due to the Blackhawks’ cap crunch, but would Chicago trade such a valuable asset to a division rival? Internally, I had high hopes for youngster Derick Brassard, but his ill-fated fight with James Neal of the Stars two years ago hindered his development when he separated his shoulder in the melee.

Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec is a possibility and I suppose you throw Olli Jokinen’s name in there as well, but if we’re talking about Olli, you know the well is running dry.

Needless to say, both Nash and the Columbus fans deserve to find a premiere pivot…and soon.

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 appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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