Friday, February 24, 2012

Battleship: the Rick Nash Edition

For those not in the know, the biggest story in the NHL is the game of Battleship in which the prize is Rick Nash. To give some context, let's back this up to the 2011 offseason. In order to make a move to push the club into the playoffs, General Manager Scott Howson acquired forward Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers, defenseman James Wisniewski from the Montreal Canadiens, and forward Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal from the New York Rangers. While these were major moves that many felt would be enough to put the Blue Jackets in contention for maybe a 7th or 8th seed, the club has managed to pummel itself all the way down to the bottom of the Western Conference. In the first fifteen games of the season, the team had only salvaged two wins. With the trade deadline looming, the Blue Jackets leaked out that their star player, Rick Nash, is on the trading block. All this is very unofficial, of course.

Who is Rick Nash?
When you think of the Columbus Blue Jackets, you think Rick Nash. He's about as iconic for this franchise as Brian Urlacher for the Chicago Bears. Nash was drafted by the Blue Jackets and is in his ninth year with the club. He has served as the team's captain for the last four years and has made five All-Star appearances. In fact, since Columbus will host the 2013 All-Star Game, Nash was probably secretly excited that he would not only be selected but would captain a team and be able to draft players as he had seen Daniel Alfreddsson do in Ottawa and Eric Staal do in Carolina in previous years. In any case, that dream is pretty much long gone. In terms of more personal achievements, he has won a gold medal in the 2010 Olympics on Team Canada. An incredibly accomplished player, he has become a consistent 30+ goal-scorer and leads his team in points. Although he has not lead the Blue Jackets to a Stanley Cup and has only appeared in the playoffs once in 2009, Nash is one of the elite players in the league who one may argue has not quite reached his potential given the fact that he is on a struggling team. Shortly after the team's playoff stint, Nash inked an 8-year extension for $62.4 million. Of course, he put a no-trade clause in his contract, but it is unofficially known that he would be willing to waive the clause provided that it be a team of his choice.

Given the fact that Nash is such an elite player, there is no club that is NOT interested to some extent in him. Howson reported that people just started asking about the availability of Nash, which is laughable because I highly doubt that GMs have nothing better to do than go on a fishing expedition for a status check on presumed "untouchable" players. In any case, Howson probably wanted to make a trade with clubs more desperate than him, but Nash's no-trade clause allowed for him to be a part of the decision as well. He has a hypothetical list of teams he would be willing to be traded to, but no one actually knows what teams are on the list but have presumed that they are Cup-contending teams. So I don't really see Nash going to the Islanders or the Oilers any time soon.

This is why I refer to the Nash situation as Battleship. You've got Nash and the Blue Jackets with a list of teams and players they are targeting. On the other side, you've got all the other teams trying to figure out how to match what they have with what Howson and Nash have. I want to stress that it is entirely possible that this game could be a draw. Nash is a huge piece. Remember, he's the captain and face of the team. He can score like crazy and offer a lot to a team. So if a team is interested in him, they're going to have to give up a lot. At least a top forward and possibly a draft pick or a prospect, depending on the major feature of the trade. At this point in the season, moving players who are such an integral part of the offense is dicey. Hockey is a game that relies on trust and chemistry. Many players have been teammates for years and have developed somewhat of a comfort level with one another. They can sense each other on the ice and can make plays. If you bring in Nash and send out a top player, the chemistry is disrupted, and production could suffer. It's a risk that a team without any playoff hopes would be willing to take because they would have nothing to lose, but Nash is rumored not to be looking at those teams. A team that is currently in the playoff hunt probably won't be willing to make such a drastic change to a roster that didn't require a player like Nash to get to that point. Acquiring Nash in the offseason is more appealing because the players would have offseason training and such to get acquainted, and the coaching staff would have time to create lines that would be most successful. I think this is the more likely scenario, but anything is possible.

Los Angeles Kings
One of the rumored front-runners in the game of Battleship is the Los Angeles Kings. However, as of tonight, the LA Kings are no longer in the hunt for Nash... at least for now. After all, who knows what rumors will be spinning around by the time the offseason rolls around? General Manager Dean Lombardi traded forward defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jeff Carter. As a Kings fan, it pains me to say this, but this is probably one of the worst trades I have seen, and I hate it on so many levels. While I loved Carter in Philadelphia, he's had a lackluster year in Columbus. He might fit nicely with former Flyers teammates Mike Richards and Simon Gagne (who is still on the injured reserved list), but there is no guarantee that he will produce. And I'm not sure if Howson was trying to get revenge on Lombardi for the whole game-clock incident from earlier this year, but Columbus is the clear winner in this lopsided trade. Jack Johnson is arguably the best American defenseman in the league, and Carter is a top six forward but not a top three. I'd say trading for R.J. Umberger might have been more on par with the Johnson trade. Even trading the two alone would have been slightly lopsided. But then a first-round pick on top of that? That's giving a lot.

What also bothers me is that Jack Johnson is an integral piece of the defense, a defense that is stellar. The problem that the Kings have and are desperately trying to solve is offense. Yes, Carter might be the piece to kickstart the offense, but I don't think that trading away a major piece of the defense that is working is not a good idea. I feel like there is now another hole in the team. You now have to rely on Slava Voynov to improve, and improve quickly, and all the other defensemen to step up their game even more than they already have. I would have much rather traded a couple depth players and a pick or not even take Carter at all.

This trade also indicates to me that Los Angeles was not on Nash's list. There had been a rumor that he did not want to go to the Kings, and this deal seems to confirm this because the Kings were looking to obtain Nash or Carter. I believe that it became a matter of parting with either defenseman Drew Doughty or goaltender Jonathan Quick, and Lombardi had made it clear that they were not on the trading block. While I find that Nash coming to LA is highly unlikely, anything is possible.

San Jose Sharks
Most likely because I live in the Bay Area, the Sharks have been rumored to be a top-contender for Nash. Supposedly, there had been talks and the Blue Jackets wanted forward Logan Couture. General Manager Doug Wilson made it clear that Couture was not on the block, and it is unclear whether Columbus countered that or all talks were dropped. However, I really don't see the Sharks making a move for Nash right now. I do think that Wilson will try again during the offseason if Nash is still available. The Sharks are most likely not intensely interested in Nash because they aren't as desperate as the Kings to fix their offense. The Sharks still have plenty of firepower with forwards like Thornton, Marleau, Couture, and Pavelski. While they might be looking to add more depth in the forward position, I don't think they'd be interested in a Nash-caliber player because of what they might have to give up in order to obtain that player. The Sharks have a great core of top six forwards that have great chemistry on the ice. To dismantle that with a major trade would be foolish considering they currently sit on top of the Pacific Division, though Phoenix is nipping right at their heels since they tie in points.

Even in the offseason, I'm not sure that the Sharks would be interested in Nash because they still have some problems on D that need to be addressed. While I'm not sure how things would work out in terms of cap space and such, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Sharks aggressively pursue Ryan Suter in the offseason. In all likelihood, the Predators will not be able to resign Suter as they will make Weber their top priority. Suter would be a great asset to the Sharks, but the two sides may not be able to meet in the numbers game.

New York Rangers
In my opinion, the Rangers are the true front-runners in this game of Battleship. They have depth in the forward position, and they may decide to make a radical move to increase that offense that last-year had been so lackluster. If they have the cap space to acquire him, they might make the move. The Rangers are very likely to win the Cup, and at that point, the team will be dismantled during the offseason anyway because of cap issues. If they can afford him, this is a very likely move. The only hesitation I see is chemistry. The Rangers have come into a groove, and their chemistry is obvious. I can see a pause because they are sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, and they didn't need Nash to get there. I don't see how Nash would not want to be a part of this team, but it's just a matter of whether the Rangers can afford a little gamble.

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