We all make our own beds in life, really we do. There’s never 100% right decisions, or 100% wrong decisions, just varying degrees of both, with alternating degrees of difficulty. That’s business, that’s personal, that’s when you’re 7 years old and when you’re 77.
Rick Nash made a big “life” decision two summers ago. Soon after the 2009 July free agency period began, Nash, after seven full seasons in Columbus (after being drafted #1 overall from the London Knights in 2002), and the Jackets first playoff appearance (a sweep at the hands of the eventual Western Conference champions, the Red Wings), signed a $62.4 million/8 year extension. Nash could have been a free agent the following summer when July 1, 2010 struck — the same day Ilya Kovalchuk hit free agency. You remember Kovalchuk, right? Once one of the most feared wingers in the game? Four straight 40-goal seasons, including two where he topped 50? Yeah, I liked that guy. I’m sure he’s doing great wherever he is.
But watching the Maple Leafs embarrass the Blue Jackets in front of hundreds of Jackets’ faithful at Nationwide Arena last night, I got to wondering about Rick Nash and his motivation. That, in part, was precepitated by Nash appearing on our “Brady And Lang In The Morning” show Wednesday morning before the game. He sounded not terribly thrilled with how the Jackets are playing, their results, how they’re being accountable to each other, and to management and who could blame him. Since that contract was extended and Nash pledged to be a Blue Jacket (a highly-paid one at that at $7.8 million/per year) until the end of the 2017-18 season, or until he’s 34. If he fulfills the contract, Nash will have played fifteen seasons in Columbus. Imagine it. Now stop shuddering. And this has NOTHING to do with the city or the fans. Just the opposite, in fact.
Any guesses as to how many playoff wins the Jackets will have collected by then? In terms of wins or rounds? Will Columbus even be there as an NHL franchise? It’s totally bizarre, innit? I GET being loyal, I GET being committed. I’m not one of these snobby Canadian types who have never set foot in freaking OHIO, let alone a great city like Columbus. It’s a superb place to live, it’s vibrant, it’s safe, it’s clean. IF the Jackets were winning and headed in the right direction, I fully understand making such a commitment. But why so long? What’s in it for these players to tie themselves down to a particular city for so long? A $7.8 million hit doesn’t exactly help the franchise, IF they wanted to trade him (Nash does have a NMC for most of those years) and for Nash, he totally limits his options.
Nash obviously felt the need to sign in Columbus and I get that he “believed” big-time in what the Jackets were doing. Steve Mason’s coming off an amazing rookie season, Voracek and Brassard are growing and youthful contributors in the lineup. R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius were healthy, both scoring, both being impactful, playing with Nash. Fedor Tyutin, Mike Commodore, Kris Russell, and Rusty Klesla were getting to be acclaimed as a strong defence core (look, I know how stupid this statement looks 30 months later, ok?!).
But now Nash is stuck. Since signing the gigantic extension, Nash’s Blue Jackets have won 70 of 177 regular seasons games — obviously no playoffs, and obviously having won 2 of 13 games, sit mired in 30th in the NHL standings, somewhere their fans are going to have to begrudgingly hope they stay.
Again, there is a STRONG core of Blue Jackets fans there. It’s a viable market if the team wins. Even when the team wasn’t winning, like 2003-04, for example, the Jackets averaged 17,369 per game that season, a better mark than noted, ahem, “hockey markets” like Calgary, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Buffalo, Washington, and Boston. So hockey can matter there, even more so than Atlanta — but this will be season number 11 there with no playoff wins and four games in total. Sound familiar, Atlanta? Last season, Columbus drew just over 13,000 and yes, the accusations are certainly there that some of that one-third empty house was papered.
Back to Nash: he simply has to endure this. More so than Jeff Carter, who was traded against his will from Philadelphia to Columbus this summer. Nash signed up for this. He could have had his freedom two summers ago. The interest would have been overwhelming. The contract would have been eclipsed Kovalchuk’s by millions of dollars. If he didn’t want the pressure of a massive market, why not Long Island — let John Tavares be your centre? Nashville, even? Play with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne? The options were endless. But Nash is stuck with this dead atmosphere, the looming (easy, people) presence of Ken Hitchcock, and the only meaningful hockey he likely plays in the next five years will be potentially in Sochi 2014 and at various World Championships. Rick Nash wanted this. He bought in. And as we’ve learned, even with our financial world’s circumstances the last three years, there’s very few free bailouts.