The general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets refused to trade his franchise player for anything less than a massive return before Monday's NHL trade deadline. Then Scott Howson held a news conference and declared that it was Rick Nash who had asked for a trade in the first place, that it wasn't the team that had asked Nash to waive his no-trade clause.
"Hey, the price was high, and I don't apologize for that," Howson said. "It had to be high."
Howson doesn't have to apologize for telling the truth, either.
In a sad, twisted way, this might have been Howson's finest hour. He has made so many mistakes as the Jackets' GM since June 2007, it's amazing that ownership let him handle this situation – even with the help of senior advisor Craig Patrick, a veteran NHL executive. But he isn't compounding his mistakes this time, and he finally is standing up for a franchise that has become the laughingstock of the league.
Howson said Nash asked for a trade in mid- to late January. The request had to be hard to hear. Nash was their captain, the face of their franchise, an elite scorer. He always had said all the right things about loving Columbus and wanting to win with the Blue Jackets. And now he wanted out.
"It took us a while to digest it," Howson said. "It took us a while to think about it, discuss it internally and then move forward with it."
Eventually Blue Jackets brass went from telling teams Nash was untouchable to saying they would listen to offers, and quickly word got out that Nash had given the Jackets a short list of teams for which he would waive his no-trade clause.
The public perception at the time was that the Blue Jackets were shopping Nash, hoping to flip him for assets they could use to rebuild the team, and the Jackets and Nash had good reason to keep the truth quiet. The Jackets needed to appear as if they were dealing from a position of strength. Nash didn't want to look like the bad guy.
Nash isn't a bad guy. By all accounts, he does love Columbus. He did (does) want to win with the Blue Jackets. But he'll be 28 in June and can't be blamed if he doesn't want to spend the prime years of his career amid more rebuilding. Nash has appeared in only four playoff games in nine seasons. Wouldn't you want a shot at a Stanley Cup?
But while applauding the fans for their patience, Nash kept brushing off the trade talk as "speculation" – as if these were just rumors – when he was the one who had set everything in motion.
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And then his agent, Joe Resnick, released a statement to TSN on Saturday saying he and Nash hoped the Blue Jackets could reach a fair deal before the deadline but warning that they would not expand their list of approved teams this summer. It was a blatant attempt to pressure Howson, a move that may have backfired if the reports are true that the Jackets actually raised their asking price afterward.
Howson had to do what was best for the Blue Jackets, not what was best for Nash. He had to work on the Jackets' timeline, not Nash's. And he already was dealing from a position of weakness, because Nash had limited the number of potential trading partners and because other teams were well aware that Nash wanted out.
But while Nash can make his list, Howson can make one, too. While Nash will move on eventually, the Blue Jackets will have to live with whatever they receive in return for him.
Howson declined to say exactly how many teams were in on Nash, only that it was "a lot," but clearly he talked to teams on and off Nash's list. Howson declined to say what his price is, but clearly it's through the roof. Reports said he was looking for a significant NHL player, top prospects and a first-round pick in general. Specifically, players like the San Jose Sharks' Logan Couture and New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto were believed to have been discussed.
"We were pretty certain we were going to get what we wanted or we weren't going to trade him," Patrick said, "and we just stuck to that right through the whole time."
As well they should have. The Jackets will have a better chance of making their best deal in the summer. Teams will have more flexibility to add a superstar to their roster and a $7.8 million salary-cap hit to their payroll through 2017-18. Some will be disappointed by their playoff performances and want to make a splash. That will be true even if Nash sticks to his short list, and if Nash expands his list for whatever reason – maybe because he'll want out even more by then – all the better.
"I think the market will be quite a bit looser in the offseason," Howson said.
Things will be tight in the meantime. Nash won't be able to pretend this was all speculation the next time he meets with the media. He will have to lead teammates and perform in front of fans who know he wants to bolt. He will have to play out the string and waste yet another spring knowing an athlete has only so many chances to win a championship.
[ Puck Daddy: Will Columbus fans turn on captain Rick Nash? ]
But it might not be so bad. Teammates and fans probably can't blame Nash too much, and they should blame ownership and management plenty. Part of Nash's appeal is that he's a quiet pro. "I have no questions about Rick's character, about the quality of person he is and the commitment he'll give us for the next six weeks," Howson said.
And it's not Howson's problem, anyway.
Yeah, he's taking a risk that Nash could get hurt, and yeah, it makes Columbus look bad when another star player wants out after the Jeff Carter fiasco. Carter sulked so much after the Jackets acquired him from the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, they shipped him to the Los Angeles Kings last week. Howson failed to anticipate that Carter would be so unhappy and that a shooter, not a passer, wouldn't mesh well with another shooter like Nash.
But Howson is smart enough to know that the only way to make Columbus look good is to win, and the best hope of winning after Nash is to get as much as possible for him. Howson is a nice man, too – maybe too nice for his own good, sometimes. He said when he talked to Nash shortly after Monday's deadline, one of the first things he told him was that he would inform the public of Nash's trade request.
"I just think it was the right thing to do," Howson said. "It's the truthful thing to do. We wanted to make sure everybody understood where everybody was on this issue because it's a very important issue to our franchise, and I think things will continue to be amicable between Rick and the organization."
We'll see about that. But the truth will set you free.
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