For the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets, there was a dollop
of good news last week: Britney Spears was back on the market
after her 55-hour marriage, which means the club's 19-year-old
left wing, Rick Nash, has a shot. Of course, Nash has always had
a shot--he had an NHL-leading 25 goals through Sunday--but now he
has a shot. Nash, who is unattached and dashing in a
high-school-prom-picture sort of way, is razzed regularly by
teammates for his fascination with Spears. But Nash is unfazed
and says he knows he could have "a great relationship and trust"
if only they could meet. He might not be able to guarantee her TV
specials, but he could arrange between-periods interviews on Fox
Sports Net Ohio.
If the NHL does a little navel gazing itself, it will find that
despite the continued excellence of 43-year-old New York
Rangers captain Mark Messier and the AARP All-Stars on the
Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL is being
dominated by young players. It's the nature of sports that some
kids who grow up with posters of athletes on their bedroom
walls one day replace the players they worshipped, but this NHL
generational shift has been tectonic. Fresh faces such as
Nash's, who was the first pick in the 2002 draft, have made the
learning curve flatter than Saskatchewan.
Given the opportunity in a bloated league that expanded from 21
to 30 teams over the last 12 years, Nash and his contemporaries
readied themselves for the NHL by starting regimented off-ice
training at a young age. That plus a recent shift in attitude
toward allowing teens to develop while in the league as well as
the economics of marketing future stars have given youngsters a
chance to succeed earlier than previous generations had.
This new generation was announced informally at the 2003 All-Star
Game when 22-year-old right wing Dany Heatley of the Atlanta
Thrashers scored five goals. (Heatley has missed this season
because of injuries suffered in a September car crash that killed
his passenger and teammate Dan Snyder.) Three of the top five
goal scorers at midseason--Nash, Atlanta left wing Ilya Kovalchuk
(22) and Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk (21)--all have played fewer
than 200 NHL games. The average age of the top 10 NHL scorers has
dipped from 30.8 in 2001-02 to 28.6 the last two years. Also, the
Team Canada roster that won the 2002 Olympic gold medal could
undergo as much as a 50% turnover for this summer's World Cup as
Nash, Heatley and 20-year-old Florida Panthers defenseman Jay
Bouwmeester, among others, elbow their way onto the club.
The NHL always will be a man's league, as general managers are
fond of saying, but those G.M.'s are increasingly putting top
draft picks to the test in their first training camps and leaving
them on NHL rosters. The 1997 decisions by the Boston Bruins and
the San Jose Sharks to keep the first two choices in the draft,
centers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, respectively, instead
of returning them to juniors raised eyebrows then, but within
three seasons both teams looked prescient. The first four choices
in the June 2003 draft began the season or are currently playing
in the NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, centers
Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes and Nathan Horton of the
Panthers, and Jackets right wing Nikolai Zherdev. They have been
joined by others from their draft class, including Minnesota Wild
forward Brent Burns, the 20th pick, and Boston forward Patrice
Bergeron, the 45th selection.
"When you get a difference maker, which Nash is, I'd get him in
there as quickly as I could," says Columbus general manager Doug
MacLean, who stepped down as Blue Jackets coach on Jan. 1. "When
I was coaching, I wanted to call his name on every shift." Even
as MacLean and Nash's agent, Gord Kirke, were trying to hammer
out a deal in October 2002 that would spare Nash from playing
another season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey
League, the Jackets were selling tickets to the season opener
with Nash's picture printed on them. (The parties agreed on a
three-year contract worth a potential $12.1 million, and Nash
played and scored in the opener.)
There is an economic reason for some clubs to keep high draft
choices on the team--"You have so much invested, you want to keep
an eye on them, almost like your child," says Wild assistant G.M.
Tom Thompson--but MacLean did not need to watch Nash as much as
the 17,000-plus fans who regularly attend Columbus matches did.
For a three-year-old franchise in a gate-driven league, a glimpse
of the Jackets' future was paramount. As MacLean puts it, "Rick
Nash, the Number 1 pick, was instantly the biggest hockey name in
Ohio. Like any other business, we're desperate for that kind of
With the league growing more receptive to putting elite
18-year-olds on a fast track, the new draftees were ready to meet
the challenge. Over the past five years draft-age players, often
schooled by national development programs and spurred on by their
agents, have been better prepared for pro hockey than any
previous generation. The same kind of conditioning that is
prolonging the careers of NHL veterans is also hustling more
young players into prominent roles. "We used to jog a little in
the summer and play some softball and think we were in good
shape," says new Columbus coach Gerard Gallant, who began his
11-year NHL career in 1984. "Now at 16, these kids are on teams
with strength and conditioning coaches."
As a 13-year-old, Nash spent a week with his Toronto-based team
at a conditioning camp and went to a similar camp two years
later. When he was 16, Kirke's agency arranged for him to work
out on a regular basis with former NHL forward Mike Marson, who
incorporates martial arts into his training. "I'd be doing 1,500
sit-ups and 500 push-ups, and he'd be doing it right alongside
me," Nash says. "I look back and wonder how I did it. But if you
wanted to [play pro hockey] the rest of your life, this is what
Nash was 6'3" and 188 pounds when MacLean traded up to draft him,
and over the past 18 months he has added one inch and 20 pounds
to his frame. Last year, Nash says, he was dazzled not by NHL
play but by NHL life, such as the swank hotels and the equipment
men who did all the dirty work. But he quickly settled in,
getting his own apartment as an 18-year-old instead of staying
with a host family, coping with the quotidian stuff his
college-age contemporaries have yet to tackle.
Nash, who scored 17 times as a rookie in 2002-03, surpassed
MacLean's first-year expectations by five goals despite playing
just 14 minutes per game on the third line. MacLean forecast a
25-goal season for him in '03-04, another myopic prediction.
Nash, who was averaging 17:28 minutes per game through Sunday,
had scored 30.1% of the Blue Jackets' goals; in the past 60
years, only four other players have accounted for more than 25%
of their team's goals. That list is topped by Pavel Bure, who
tallied 29.5% of the goals by the '00-01 Panthers.
"He doesn't beat guys one-on-one with his speed, but he beats
defensemen out of the corner, gets to the front of the net,
scores with his great hands and long reach, all that solid
stuff," Gallant says. "Most NHL goals are scored in the crease
area. If he keeps getting there, he'll keep scoring. He's not
likely to go into a long funk."
Except for the Blue Jackets' 11-23-6-3 record, there is no funk
in the charmed life of Rick Nash. He bought a house in the
suburbs, hangs out with Ohio State end Simon Fraser, adores his
Columbus teammates and knocks in a ton of goals on rebounds. And
speaking of rebounds, Britney's concert tour stops in Cleveland
on April 1.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO GOOD CHOICE The 19-year-old Nash, who was drafted No. 1 in 2002, leads the league in goals.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU CRASH HAPPY The 6'4", 208-pound Nash is tough to move from the crease, where he scores most of his goals.
COLOR PHOTO: L. MEYER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (BOUWMEESTER)
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (DATSYUK)
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC MILLER/REUTERS (BOUCHER)
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
SI's Pierre McGuire ranks the top five NHL defensemen who are 22
and younger (stats through Sunday)
1. JONI PITKANEN, 20, FLYERS Strong in his own zone and seldom
gets caught out of position because he has great quickness and
lateral mobility; as good offensively as he is defensively; could
be a Norris Trophy winner one day.
2. JAY BOUWMEESTER, 20, PANTHERS May be the best and most
fluid skater who is 6'4" or taller to ever play in the league; a
slick passer who knows when to join the rush, he's becoming more
3. BARRET JACKMAN, 22, BLUES Sidelined for the season with a
shoulder injury, the 2002-03 Calder Trophy winner will be a force
for years; the fearless defensive standout will do anything to
4. PAUL MARTIN, 22, DEVILS Outstanding fundamentally with strong
skating ability that helps him overcome relatively slight build
(6'1", 190 pounds); makes solid decisions with the puck,
especially when moving it out of his zone.
5. STEVE EMINGER, 20, CAPITALS Team's smartest all-around
blueliner; doesn't back down when challenged; excellent at moving
the puck out of his zone.
McGuire also ranks the top 10 NHL forwards who are 22 and younger
1. LW RICK NASH, 19, BLUE JACKETS Power forward with soft hands;
excels in the slot, wins tough battles for pucks down low; league
leader with 25 goals.
2. LW ILYA KOVALCHUK, 20, THRASHERS Speed merchant has
some of the best one-on-one moves in the NHL; hard, accurate shot
enables him to score from a distance, especially when playing the
point on power plays.
3. C JASON SPEZZA, 20, SENATORS Strong on the puck, he makes the
players around him better; difficult to defend because of his
excellent vision and scoring touch.
4. F PATRICE BERGERON, 18, BRUINS Smart all-around player who is
versatile enough to play each forward position; with outstanding
hands and stickhandling ability, he was second among rookies with
5. C MATT STAJAN, 20, MAPLE LEAFS Similar to Bergeron in his
understanding of the game; despite being only 6'1" and 180
pounds, his high skill level and first-rate defensive ability
make him valuable.
6. C ERIC STAAL, 19, HURRICANES A pure scorer (his 19 points rank
second on the team) with soft hands who finds open areas in
defensive coverage; quick release often catches goaltenders
7. C-LW TUOMO RUTTU, 20, BLACKHAWKS Physical player who handles
the puck at his feet as well as any young player, which makes him
a demon along the boards; with strong hockey sense, he doesn't
need much room to make plays.
8. C NATHAN HORTON, 18, PANTHERS Two-way player who brings to
mind a young Bryan Trottier; not afraid to mix it up, he'll have
lots of scars on his face by the time his career is finished.
9. LW RAFFI TORRES, 22, OILERS A 6-foot, 215-pounder, he's thick,
powerful and devastating on the forecheck; great speed also
allows him to create offensive chances. (He was second on the
team with 12 goals.)
10. C MATTHEW LOMBARDI, 21, FLAMES Not very big (5'11", 191
pounds), but he has the ability, like Pat LaFontaine did, to make
plays at high speed; unlike LaFontaine, he's a physical player.
THE STARTING SIX
Here are senior writer Michael Farber's picks for the midseason
All-Stars (statistics through Sunday)
G MARTIN BRODEUR, DEVILS The top netminder of the post-Patrick
Roy era is also the NHL's best player.
D ROB BLAKE, AVALANCHE With 10 goals and 32 points, the 1998
Norris Trophy winner had one of his best starts.
D SCOTT NIEDERMAYER, DEVILS A skating marvel who blends finesse
with excellent positioning.
C PAVEL DATSYUK, RED WINGS The league's sixth-leading scorer (45
points) is a puck magician who has reinvigorated 39-year-old
winger Brett Hull.
LW MARKUS NASLUND, CANUCKS Less flashy than Ilya Kovalchuk but a
superb scorer (league-leading 49 points).
RW SHANE DOAN, COYOTES A first-round draft pick in 1995, he has
incrementally pushed himself to the brink of
THE GOOD NEWS...
Here are the five best surprises from the first half of 2003-04
(stats through Sunday)
BRIAN BOUCHER'S BREAKOUT A career backup (seven shutouts over
his first four NHL seasons before 2003-04), the Coyotes'
netminder set a modern record last week with five straight blanks
and a 332:01 scoreless streak.
THE RISE OF PAVEL DATSYUK Everyone knew the Red Wings' center was
talented, but no one expected him to be one of the league's top
goal scorers (21).
VALIANT ATLANTA The Thrashers were rocked by the auto accident
that killed Dan Snyder and sidelined top scorer Dany Heatley
possibly for the season, but they've hung tough near the top of
the Southeast Division.
PATRICK WHO? Thanks to the stellar play of netminder David
Aebischer, the 23-10-7-2 Avalanche hasn't missed a beat since
Patrick Roy retired.
RED-HOT FLAMES With essentially the same roster that won 29 games
in 2002-03, coach and G.M. Darryl Sutter, in his first full
season, has Calgary (22-13-3-3) on track for its first playoff
appearance since '95-96.
...THE BAD NEWS
And here are the five biggest disappointments from the first half
of the season
J.S. GIGUERE'S FREE FALL Last season's playoff MVP has crashed
to earth (6-17-4, 2.75 goals-against average) for the equally
disappointing Mighty Ducks.
DOMINIK HASEK'S COMEBACK The Dominator's celebrated return to
Detroit fizzled because a nagging groin injury kept him out of 28
of the first 45 games.
LABOR FOOT-DRAGGING The owners and players have yet to begin
serious talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, and a
lockout on Sept. 15 seems inevitable.
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF ERIC LINDROS His MVP days (1994-95) are
ancient history, and the Rangers' fragile 30-year-old center has
become little more than a role player (eight goals and 26
WHERE'S THE OFFENSE? Overall scoring (4.95 goals-per-game) had
hit its lowest level since 1954-55, and the supposed crackdown on
obstruction hasn't happened. Too often the world's fastest game
looks as if it's being played in slow