Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock ran the bench in Columbus when Rick Nash was the biggest gun there Derek Stepan of the Arizona Coyotes was Nash’s centre in their time together on Broadway, so both have a closer perspective than most on what made the just-retired forward special.
It’s not just his 437 goals since he was drafted first overall in 2002 with only Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla and Patrick Marleau with more over the past 16 years. Or Nash co-sharing the Maurice Richard for most goals (41) in 2004 with Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk. Or carrying the New York Rangers to the President’s Trophy in 2014-2015, with his last of three 40-goal (42) seasons.
It’s the professionalism the six-foot-four, 212-pound Nash showed until too many blows to the head KO’d him after 1,060 games and five other 30-goal seasons to go with the 40s.
“Rick adjusted to become a complete player and it really showed at the Olympics. Once we got him where he was killing penalties and matching him head-to-head against top players, his whole disposition on the ice changed,” said Hitchcock, who coached Nash for 284 games in Columbus, along with being part of Canada’s Olympic team as an assistant coach in 2006 and 2010. “He was an unbelievable positional player, so smart. Whenever we needed help in two Olympics, he was the guy we would put on a line to get it going.”
Seventy-three game-winning goals, an Olympic gold in 2010 in Sochi for Canada. Should he have scored more in the playoffs? Yes. But he was also good enough to play on a high-end Canadian team in Sochi, and definitely contribute. In some ways, they have said the same of Marleau, that he should have done in post season.
“My second year in Columbus, the year we made the playoff (2008-2009), everything changed for Rick,” said Hitchcock. “He bought into what we were selling and took a team on his back. He made players accountable. It was one of the easiest sales jobs I’ve ever had, it was fun to see.”
He was an absolute handful with the puck, five-on-five, and killing penalties.
“If you bobbled the puck on the power play, you would be scared to death on a breakaway or two-on-one, and he could really finish those (22 in his career),” said Hitchcock.
Nash went first in 2002 with then Columbus GM Doug MacLean manoeuvering to get the top pick.
Kari Lehtonen was No. 2 selection by Atlanta and Jay Bouwmeester No. 3 to Florida. He had 17 goals his first year, breaking in at 18 and 41 the next, so a quick study.
He was in Columbus for nine years until craving a change of scenery in 2012 was traded to the Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick. He was supposed to be the last piece to get the Rangers another Cup, but the closest they came was 2014, losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Final.
“When he first came to New York, everybody looked up to him,” said Stepan, who played seven years with Rangers until dealt to Arizona for the seventh overall pick in 2017.
“He had a list of accomplishments before he got to New York and as a young guy I played with him, looked up to him a lot. I learned about being a pro, everywhere he went that was his M.0., that he was a complete pro.
“He’s a big part of my footprint and he put his touch on it.”
Stepan feels badly that Nash has had to quit probably three or four years before he wanted. He wasn’t dominant because of the concussions and told teams he wasn’t interested in signing anywhere as a free-agent July 1.
“Towards the end of my time in New York, he had a couple of concussions that caused him to miss time and that’s something you just can’t mess with,” said Stepan. “Obviously you never want to see a player retire because of concussions but Rick’s a true pro. He noticed his life apart from hockey was more important.”
Hitchcock will remember a friend as well as his coach.
“We’ve been very close,” he said. “I knew a month ago he wasn’t feeling great. He’s a heckuva guy who had a heckuva career and I hope he gets 100 percent healthy.”