Commentary

Center of attention? It's a new role for Columbus' Nash

Updated: November 3, 2008, 5:40 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

And starting at center … Rick Nash.

Trying to send a two-part message to his biggest star -- roughly, to get his head in the game and his posterior and feet in higher gear -- Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock tried moving Nash to center against Colorado last week, and it could be the beginning of an intermittent strategy.

"We have to get our better players more involved," Hitchcock said. "Everybody talks about all the missed breakaways, and all those things, but those are one-and-out chances. They're not sustained. So Rick can be more effective. We have to get him in more sustained pressure situations.

[+] EnlargeRick Nash
Michael Martin/Getty ImagesRick Nash has five goals in his first 11 games this season for the Blue Jackets.

"Even if he's seeing the other team's top five players every night, he still has to be in a position where he gets excited by keeping the puck in the zone and creating more opportunities than he's getting right now. Right now, the scoring opportunities every night are on the negative when he's on the ice, and we can't afford for that to happen."

After skating at center in practice for the previous two days, Nash indeed was penciled in the starting lineup in the middle, then went on to play most of the first period there in the Blue Jackets' 4-2 victory in Denver. That was the first time Nash had played center since he was 9 or 10, and he initially was between Jason Chimera and Kristian Huselius. The line worked against Colorado's Paul Stastny-centered line, and Nash didn't have a point.

Once Columbus was comfortably ahead and went to the deep freeze, Nash was back at wing, with Jiri Novotny in the middle. Hitchcock also indicated he would have left Nash at center longer if Nash hadn't tweaked a minor back injury that made it tougher for him to take faceoffs.

"Hitch did make the shift, and I thought the couple of shifts I did play there felt fine," Nash said. "I did all right … I think he was trying to get me the puck more, trying to get me to see more, and trying something new because it wasn't working before. I thought it was good. I got my feet moving and had a couple of good chances. We'll see where it goes from here, but I thought that overall, it was fine.

"It's a different position, but the only real challenge is faceoffs. When the puck drops, you fill lanes, first guy back, first guy in, it doesn't really matter."

In some ways, the move was symbolic as well as strategic. The chances of the Blue Jackets trying to transform the former Maurice Richard Trophy winner into a full-time center -- hoping he can be an effective big man in the middle in the Joe Thornton mold -- are probably minimal. And they should be. But the message has been delivered, both to Nash and to opponents: It might happen, at least occasionally. It's something to think about.

"I mean, I've played left wing all my career," Nash said. "It was nice to get a little switch. But I'm a player. He's the coach. I'll let him make those decisions."

The other issue is that in his five-plus seasons with the Jackets, Nash has worked with a huge cast of linemates, and many of them aren't among the game's constellations. It also probably is worth seeing how much of a generator he can be in the middle, both for himself and others, at least as a change of pace.

"I'm just trying to lead this team, be a good leader and get to the next step, where we've never been -- the playoffs," he said. "That's my main goal."

Hitchcock also was looking ahead to the imminent returns of left wingers Raffi Torres and Fredrik Modin.

"Somebody's going to have to play up high in the lineup and out of position," Hitchcock said. "We have to find somebody to play out of position and be effective, whether it's center or right wing or whatever. We already are having Huselius playing out of position [at right wing] and he's just now getting used to it. Somebody else is going to have to play out of position and we might as well take a look at it right now."

Hitchcock didn't reprise the experiment on Saturday night, when Nash had a short-handed assist -- but nine shots -- in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Torres came off the injured list and played his first game for the Blue Jackets. For the season, Nash has five goals and two assists heading into Monday night's road game against the New York Islanders. When Hitchcock talked about the mental challenges Nash would face playing center, it was tempting to read between the lines about how he hoped to get Nash more engaged -- no matter where he's playing.

"I think the thing that's significant is you can't rest on the ice," Hitchcock said. "You cannot rest on the ice if you're the center iceman. You take a look at a guy like Thornton, he's got good players with him but he has to work all the time. It's a significant challenge from a rest standpoint. You can't rest and watch. You have to be in constant motion, you have to be skating all the time, you have to be close to the action and be in the middle of the ice, transporting the puck. You're really involved.

"There's no such thing as getting that one pass on the breakaway. You're going to have to handle the puck and you're going to have to be connected every shift. I don't think it's the position, it's more the action and being involved in the action than the position."

In his third season -- his second full season -- with the Blue Jackets, Hitchcock's system is fully entrenched, and there's no disputing it has tightened Nash's leash. But he continues to at least publicly maintain that he isn't chafing.

"You just don't really cheat," Nash said. "It's defense first. That's how we play. We've been getting a lot of offensive chances with solid defense. It has been a change since [Hitchcock has] been here, but I think I've adapted.

"He's got the résumé to prove what he does, does work. We knew that coming in. This isn't a guy who hasn't won anything, who has all these systems and different ways about the game that don't work. He's got the résumé to prove that they do, and we have to buy into it."

Nash acknowledged his numbers "could be a lot better" if he had more freedom. "But I'm not worried about my numbers," he added. "Mike Modano scored 50 goals before Hitch got there, and after Hitch got there, I don't think he scored 50 again. But he's got the ring. The last thing I'll worry about are my personal numbers. I'm worried about winning as a team and putting Columbus on the hockey map."

Or at the center of it?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."