Like Modano, Nash and Zherdev can learn from Hitch

Updated: December 6, 2006, 10:04 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

This is, after all, a man capable of teaching Brett Hull that there are, as rumored, two ends to an ice hockey rink, a task rivaling Columbus convincing the Spanish court that man could not sail off the edge of the world.

A man who transformed styling-mousse Mike Modano from all flash and tinsel into a trustworthy two-way player.

Rick Nash
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesRick Nash has seven goals and eight assists in 23 games.

And now, Ken Hitchcock has taken on arguably his most taxing assignment yet: the enigmatic Rick Nash.

Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets' poster boy for just about everything (massive upside, failed promise, etc.), is an extravagantly gifted, maddeningly inconsistent and decidedly one-dimensional piece of gold-chip stock.

"Great players," preached Hitchcock with the fervor of a tent evangelist in mid-rant, "do more than score goals."

All Rick Nash can do is score goals. Not that it's a bad trait to possess, but too often if the goals dry up, he looks listless and uninspired.

The Nash-Hitchcock relationship is central to how the one-time Dallas and Philly tactician will fare in the sleepy hockey climate of Ohio. Nash is his test case. His barometer. He won't have trouble convincing old pros Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote to buy in. They've supped on success before, understand the process and the sacrifices, and are sick to the teeth of the losing in Columbus.

But it's the Rick Nashes and Nikolai Zherdevs who need to be cultivated and shaped into winners, rather than budding stars. When Hitchcock says, pointedly, "you have success in this league when you learn to check," he's targeting a few key people in the message. And it doesn't take Scotty Bowman to figure out exactly whom.

Hitchcock is a teacher, as he says. But not from the Mr. Chips school of rumpled cardigans and squishy-soled Hush Puppies. This is someone not averse to administering tough love.

Demanding. Relentless. Unbending. Just a few of the adjectives used to describe Ken Hitchcock over the years.

"Nik to me is on the learning ropes of being a good professional player," he reasoned. "Diet. Rest. The balance. He's taking baby steps. These are things Rick already knows. His obligation to this organization is to become a complete player, not just a goal scorer. He needs to feel good about himself for things other than goals.

"He's eager to learn that stuff, but he doesn't need the burden of having to be the guy every night. He's 22 years of age."

"My job is to keep the train on the tracks. In Philly, the attitude was 'Cup or bust.' Every year. Here, we're trying to build something. It takes time. It takes patience. I know the long-term way to get a team to be a winning hockey club, to get into the playoffs and do damage in the playoffs."
-- Coach Ken Hitchcock on the Jackets

For his part, Nash said he doesn't feel at all overwhelmed by expectations.

"I don't think that way at all. Fedorov's headed to the Hall of Fame. Anson Carter scored over 30 last year. Zherdev's a great young player. I want to produce. But I'm not the only one who can, or has to," Nash said. "Hitch is the perfect guy for this job. He's coached world-class players. He's won Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals. He's done it all. When he walks into any dressing room, he has instant respect from the players."

The similarities between today's Rick Nash and a young, emerging Mike Modano are many.

"They're the same in that they both internalize things," said Hitchcock. "If Mo didn't score and the team didn't win, he got very down. But he learned the importance, the value, of contributing in all areas. If you check, his point totals never changed. But his plus-minus did."

Hitchcock already has Nash out on the penalty-killing unit, trying to drum more responsibility into him. The days of a couple points in a losing cause being good enough will soon be at an end, if they aren't already over, no matter what name happens to be stitched onto the back of your jersey.

"You have to change your value system," lectured Hitchcock. "You're not going to score 80 to 90 goals in this league anymore. So players have to learn to contribute in other areas."

The dark areas. The dirty areas. The areas that separate the riffraff from the respectable.

Heaven knows there's ample room for improvement with this outfit. This is a franchise, remember, that has just as many shutouts against (49) in its history as road wins (49); one that has already been blanked six times this season and finds itself mired on the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Nikolai Zherdev
AP Photo/Paul SancyaAfter a turbulent offseason, Nikolai Zherdev is trying to find his way in Columbus.

"Hitch," said Fedorov, a Stanley Cup winner under Bowman's tutelage in Motown, "is going to make us better. He's great with the details and the organizing. He's a proven winner. He's going to demand we work as a group. No exceptions."

He won the battle with Modano and, ultimately, Hull. Can he win it with Nash?

Following a 2-1 loss at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary on Friday night, the Jackets are 1-3 since Hitchcock arrived. All three losses were by one goal. But they are still losses.

Hitchcock insisted he sees a lot of similarities between this job and the one he took over in Big D during the 1995-96 season.

"Here," he said, "we're dealing with respectability. This is a young team. They make mistakes. We just have to teach and weather. But from what I've seen, they're willing to learn.

"My job is to keep the train on the tracks. In Philly, the attitude was 'Cup or bust.' Every year. Here, we're trying to build something. It takes time. It takes patience. I know the long-term way to get a team to be a winning hockey club, to get into the playoffs and do damage in the playoffs.

"But there's some pain to go through before you get there."

Those directly involved please take note: Epidurals are expressly forbidden.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.