More to Nash than goals? Hitch trying to find out
CHICAGO -- It's not quite Frankenstein's laboratory. But in the absence of the sparks and B-grade equipment, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock is attempting the NHL equivalent of a grainy sci-fi movie experiment -- transforming one-dimensional scoring stud Rick Nash into a monster player.
Cue the thunder and angry, pitch-fork-carrying townsfolk.
"He's playing me in different situations that I've never been in before," Nash told ESPN.com this week.
"You'd never see me on the ice in the last five minutes of a one-goal game" before Hitchcock took over the coaching reins, Nash admitted with a laugh.
"He's trying to make me a more complete player."
It doesn't seem like much, does it? Putting a player on the ice to kill some penalties or to take some shifts late in games or periods, but those are the moments players live for, the moments that tell a player he has arrived. Conversely, when a player is not on the ice for those crucial moments, it sends a clear signal to everyone that a player can't be trusted, no matter how many goals he's scored.
Maybe Nash didn't deserve to be.
In his first NHL season, the first overall pick in the 2002 draft scored a very respectable 17 goals as an 18-year-old. He then followed with a monster (that word again! Cue menacing clouds!) 41-goal effort that saw him share the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk.
But the numbers few people remember from those first two seasons are minus-27 and minus-35. Over two NHL seasons, Nash was on the ice for 62 more goals scored by opponents than the Blue Jackets scored. Those are the numbers of a one-dimensional player on a team headed nowhere.
Hitchcock said all of the best players in the world learned to take control of a game in all three zones -- offensive, neutral and defensive.
"They also learned that all of their teammates are watching them," Hitchcock told ESPN.com.
When Hitchcock took over for the dismissed Gerard Gallant in late November, one of the first things he did was talk to Nash. Hitchcock told Nash that elite players around the league, Iginla, Marian Hossa, Mats Sundin and Joe Sakic, all played those crucial moments. It's about learning to have an impact not just on a game, but also having an impact on a team by doing little things, like blocking shots and successfully killing a key penalty. Hitchcock told Nash he needed him to be that kind of player, too.
It is the kind of evolution that saw Steve Yzerman evolve from offensive force to consummate leader. No coincidence the former Red Wings captain started collecting Stanley Cup rings after the transition.
"Rick's a good young player," Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said Tuesday before the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets were set to clash here. "He gives them a lot of different looks."
The more situations Nash is exposed to, "the quicker he's going to learn them and the better they're going to be down the road," Savard added.
Nash isn't there yet, of course, but Hitchcock is full of praise.
"He's been a really quick learner. He's not just a good penalty killer, he's become a great penalty killer," Hitchcock said. "He's had a huge impact on our games.
"He's adjusted much quicker than I thought anybody could. He's done a 180-degree turn right away. I've got to tell you, it's been pretty impressive."
One pro scout said Nash has an abundance of assets that should lend themselves to improved defensive play and penalty killing, things like reach and speed and natural scoring ability. Those assets have led to more scoring chances while the Blue Jackets have been shorthanded.
As for intangibles, like learned responsibility, scout Don Granato said he thinks it's a natural.
"People are more motivated when they feel you give them responsibility [when you trust them], and the perception is that only the most responsible players are on the [penalty kill]," said Granato, a former assistant coach with St. Louis and a longtime minor pro coach.
"They are more aware. This awareness of defensive or team concepts, and an immediate sense of objective, can and often will carry over to a player's 5-on-5 play," Granato added.
The new role might end up being a kind of seminal moment for Nash and, perhaps, the long-suffering Blue Jackets, who have yet to qualify for the playoffs since coming into the league in 2000.
If we can use the Frankenstein analogy again, Hitchcock isn't looking to rebuild Nash, put his feet up and wait for accolades. He needs to rebuild Nash before he can rebuild a team that knows nothing but losing.
Hitchcock said Nash's successes make it "much easier for me to sell the program," especially with the younger players. "I think they see the rewards of playing the game right."
Although it's not a simple equation, it seems obvious the Blue Jackets' fortunes are tied closely to Nash's evolution as a player.
The Brampton, Ontario, native followed up his stellar 2003-04 season (he was the youngest player to lead the league in goals) with a stellar season in Switzerland during the lockout, and then wowed observers with his performance at the 2005 World Championships.
But when the NHL returned in 2005-06, Nash was hampered by injury, but still ended up with 31 goals in 54 games. He was a member of Canada's Olympic team in Torino a year ago, but did not play particularly well. Nash was benched, in part, by Hitchcock, who was an assistant to Team Canada coach Pat Quinn.
This season, there have been more injuries, but Nash's point totals are still impressive. He's expected to return to action Thursday night after missing a few games with a lower-body injury, but still has 30 points in 39 games. He's also a minus-7. Nash was also selected to the Western Conference All-Star team as a reserve.
"I don't know if 'difficult' is the right word" to describe the past 18 months, Nash said. "My game was about to go to another level and injuries took over. It just sort of slowed me down for a time. I think my game is kind of in a rebuilding stage. I'm playing a lot more defense now. Just the way Hitch put it, you need your top guys doing everything."
Said Nash on the detail that Hitchcock brings to his pregame plan: "I've never been prepared like that before. Since he's been here, my game has definitely jumped to another level."
The defensive elements aren't the only changes, not just for Nash, but for the team. Hitchcock has imposed the 90-minute rule. If the team has a bad effort -- and they have occasionally after enjoying a solid run immediately after Hitchcock's arrival -- Hitchcock has taken pains to ensure the team doesn't dwell on it.
"I think it's great," Nash said. "With us being such a young team, we have had a tendency to get down on ourselves.
"I knew his reputation as a hard coach to play for," Nash added. "It's all worth it to win. He's not here to make any friends."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.