“What we really don’t want to do is dismantle the core of the organization.” That’s what general manager Glen Sather said exactly one month ago at the NHL draft, and that’s what makes the Rick Nash trade such an obvious victory for the New York Rangers.
The Rangers didn’t dismantle the core of the organization after advancing to the Eastern Conference final. They hardly touched it. They didn’t cave to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ demands, knowing GM Scott Howson’s options were limited by Nash’s trade demand, no-trade clause and huge contract.
This is what the Rangers gave up Monday: forwards Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, who combined for 26 goals in the regular season and only three in the playoffs; Tim Erixon, their best defense prospect, but still a prospect; and a first-round pick.
No Derek Stepan. No Chris Kreider. No Ryan McDonagh or Michael Del Zotto.
And in return the Rangers added the scoring winger they needed, the kind of offensive force who could put them over the top. Nash has averaged 34 goals over the past eight seasons, and he did it with a team so bad that it appeared in only four playoff games in his nine-year career. He’s still only 28, and he isn’t a prima donna. He’s a quiet, hard-working guy going to a shut-up-and-work group.
Imagine him on the better team he wanted. Imagine him on Brad Richards’ right wing.
[Related: Nash derby ends with gunner going from Blue Jackets to Blueshirts]
The Rangers, who also received a conditional third-rounder and a minor-leaguer, have been building for years. They drafted. They developed. They supplemented with key free agents like Richards and Marian Gaborik, instead of throwing around big money and trying to use free agency as a foundation the way they used to.
They leapt forward in 2011-12, finishing first in the East and coming within two games of the Stanley Cup final. Thanks to great goaltending and a shot-blocking defense, they overcame a lack of experience and offense. They were one of the youngest teams in the NHL. They ranked 11th in goals per game.
They could have continued to grow as they were. Remember, Marc Staal, once a top-pair defenseman, didn’t play the first half of 2011-12 because of a concussion and struggled to regain his form. Gaborik played with a torn rotator cuff in the playoffs that needed surgery. Dubinsky had a high ankle sprain. Kreider went straight from college to the playoffs.
But the Rangers had reached the point where they needed to make a bold move to add another piece. “If you don’t have low draft picks,” Sather said last month, “the other option you have is to be aggressive in the trade market or the free-agent market.”
Zach Parise wasn’t going to leave the New Jersey Devils for his old Hudson River rivals. He was going home to the Minnesota Wild in free agency. So Nash it was.
Now, Howson would have liked the Rangers to be a little more aggressive. He held out for a high price before the trade deadline. He held out for a high price at the draft. He didn’t get the high price he wanted.
It’s easy to say that he should have made the deal earlier, and it looks like he got fleeced. But keep a couple of things in mind:
One, Howson was in no hurry. It might have helped the Rangers to do this before the deadline, but it wouldn’t have helped the Jackets, who weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway. Howson had to make the best deal he could.
And two, at least Howson knows he made the best he could have, at least at this point. Maybe he could have gotten a little more from the Rangers before the deadline. But the thinking then – among the Jackets’ brass and many rival executives – was that he would have a better chance in the summer, when more teams would have the flexibility to add a star to their roster and a $7.8 million salary-cap hit to their payroll through 2017-18.
Howson had to aim high. He was trading his captain, the leader in the team record books, the face of the franchise. Thing was, Nash wanted out, Nash had a short list of teams to which he would accept a trade, Nash had control and everybody knew it.
[Also: Visnovsky seeks to void trade to Islanders]
The San Jose Sharks wouldn’t give up Logan Couture. Nash wouldn’t expand his list to go to, say, the Ottawa Senators. Howson wouldn’t trade Nash to the Detroit Red Wings, a Central Division rival, only to watch him come into the building and burn his old team game after game, year after year.
The market was limited. It remained limited. The jackpot just wasn’t coming.
For this deal to be anything but a disaster for Columbus, Anisimov, Dubinsky, Erixon and that first-rounder all will have to pan out. The Jackets actually have three first-rounders next year – theirs, the Rangers’ and the Los Angeles Kings’ – but that is dubious for a team that hasn’t hit it big since it drafted … well, Rick Nash.
But the problem really isn’t the return here. Under the circumstances, the return is OK – no more, no less. The problem in the little picture is that Howson raised expectations by holding out for so much, and the problem in the big picture is that Howson made such a mess that Nash, who signed long-term with the Jackets, who always said he loved Columbus, didn’t want to waste any more time waiting for a rebuild that might never be complete.
Now Nash is going someplace where he could be one of the final pieces – if not the final piece – of a rebuild done right.
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