COLUMBUS, Ohio – Rick Nash had just come off the ice for perhaps the final time representing the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Someone asked him about how well the team had played down the stretch of the 2011-12 season, despite being eliminated from playoff contention for several months.
“Playing well and winning games is fun,” he said after a 7-3 win in Saturday night’s season finale against the New York Islanders. “Our last 20 games, we set a goal and we achieved it. It was pretty special. It came down to the last game and we won. It was fun doing it. Whenever you’re around a winning team and winning atmosphere, it makes things a lot easier.”
That, in short, is why Nash may no longer be a part of the only NHL team for which he has ever played. He hasn’t had much fun playing for bad teams, supported by marginal players and undercut by questionable management decisions throughout his stellar career.
In January, the team captain asked management to trade him. His public stance has been that he did it to help the team. He never mentions how it might also get him to another club where the Stanley Cup playoffs are a given instead of a wispy hope most years.
Coming off perhaps their most disappointing season ever—and that’s saying something—the Blue Jackets now are bracing for an off-season that will likely entail a complete reconfiguration of the roster, possibly the coaching staff and even the front office.
Nash, the club’s most recognizable commodity for a decade, is unlikely to return. Several other well-known names probably won’t be back next fall, including Kristian Huselius, Radek Martinek, Aaron Johnson and even former Calder Trophy-winning goalie Steve Mason. They’ll likely be replaced by a wave of younger, edgier, more competitive, more dependable and, yes, cheaper players.
“Tough times make you stronger,” forward R.J. Umberger said after the club’s 11th season finale.
If that’s the case, the Blue Jackets ought to be built like the Incredible Hulk.
There’s an air of doubt even about the front office. General manager Scott Howson’s job isn’t necessarily secure after being blamed by fans for Nash’s discontent, along with the blockbuster deal last summer—universally applauded at the time by fans, rival GMs and players—that brought Jeff Carter to Columbus. Carter was apparently unhappy from the outset and after a listless, injury-filled half a season had to be dealt at the deadline to Los Angeles. In return, the Blue Jackets received a first-round draft pick and a quality young defenceman in Jack Johnson, who loves the city and team.
It’s players like Johnson who will serve as the basis for the new-look Blue Jackets. He led the club to 11 wins in its last 19 games.
“I don’t know what happened at the beginning of the year,” said Johnson, a Michigan man in the heart of Ohio State territory. “This league’s too good to dig yourself in a hole early. You have to get off to a good start to make it a little bit easier on yourself later on. Obviously there’s some good hockey players here. This team’s not far off.”
Coming off a year when it had, by far, the worst record in the NHL (29-46-7 for 65 points), the club has the inside track on the overall No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft. That player, most likely Russian star Nail Yakupov, could be another building block in the reconstruction of a team that made its only playoff appearance three years ago.
Or maybe not. The club has only about a 50-50 shot at even getting Yakupov, despite its sorry season.
Blue Jackets fans have come to expect the worst for a franchise that also has a history of dumb picks and bad luck. They remember that the Blue Jackets lost the coin flip with Minnesota for Marian Gaborik in the 2000 entry draft. Columbus has also been a forlorn place for promising Russians such as Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov, high first-round picks whose tenure with the team ended badly.
Another big question is who will coach the team. Todd Richards picked up 38 points in his 41-game interview for head coach. It remains to be seen if that’ll be enough for management to knock the word interim off his job title.
Richards, who succeeded the fired Scott Arniel on Jan. 9, had a solid handle on the team as it finished well despite missing several top injured players.
“We played some really good hockey,” he said of those last 19 games. “To me, that’s the springboard going forward.”
Giddy from an emotional final-game win, Nash was asked if the Blue Jackets’ finish left room for optimism next season.
“We’re on the right track here,” he said.
It’s a track that probably won’t include him, however.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .