Rick Nash: Don’t Sell the Farm

Rick Nash: Don’t Sell the Farm

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courtesy of Garrett Bauman

The Rick Nash sweepstakes are on and speculation about what kind of return he’ll merit is quickly spinning out of control.  Bob McKenzie tried to dial back the enthusiasm a bit Tuesday night by suggesting that Howson may still wait on dealing his franchise winger until the draft or later in summer.  Whether it happens that way or not, business has definitely picked up.

Many of McKenzie’s media brethren were not so quick to douse the flames.  Pierre Lebrun began the hysteria by suggesting that Howson will require four (yes that’s right, four) top notch assets to justify moving Nash.  From a Leafs point of view, he claimed the package would have to start with Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn.  Mark Spector of Sportsnet suggested that those four players might need to be James Reimer, Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne.

Whoa.

If that sounds borderline insane as you read it, I can assure you, you’re not alone.  Before trading every top asset Burke has worked for years now to acquire, maybe it would be worth taking a step back and looking at Nash a little closer.

The difficult thing about this whole scenario is evaluating what kind of asset you’re really getting if you trade for Rick Nash.  Due to the fact that he has spent his whole career in Columbus – a market few fans pay any attention whatsoever to – most fans, and even most media personalities are only familiar with the Nash from highlight reels, international events and all-star games.

The result is that the whole hockey world appears to have an inflated opinion about Nash.  He takes absolutely none of the blame for the decade of failure in Columbus and appears to be endlessly admired for his contributions to Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.  Whereas a player in a prominent hockey market might have his flaws publically flaunted and analyzed ad nauseum, in Columbus Nash has effectively been shielded.

Inept management aside, Nash and fans of Nash need to accept that he was a part of the ongoing lack of success.  He is the captain after all, and he is expected to lead his club to the post-season.  At the end of the day, when a player is pulling in as much money as Nash is, he should be able to make his team a contender for the final playoff spot.  At the very least, they should be in the hunt.

An east coast comparable would be Eric Staal.  Staal also lacks a supporting cast (although he does have a first class goaltender) and is paid similarly in the upper-echelon of NHL athletes.  However, Staal’s contributions have brought the Hurricanes to the playoffs on a few occasions and kept them in the hunt on most others.  In fact, you could argue Staal’s ability to take over games has actually been a detriment – allowing the Canes to be good enough to come up just short of the eighth and final playoff seed, but not allowing them to be poor enough to land a lottery area draft pick.

Nash has not done this.  His team has repeatedly finished in the bottom five of the league.  If he is to be measured based on results, then the results seem to indicate he leaves a lot to be desired in a captain.

This is not to say that Rick Nash is not a star in the NHL though.  It is not to say he isn’t worth trading for or that he couldn’t help a team. It does say that it is at least possible Nash is not the perfect prototypical Canadian hockey superstar that many envision him as.  He has faults.  He has questions marks.  It’s worth examining them now, because you can sure bet they’ll be examined in full the first time he has a scoring slump in a prominent hockey market.

Whenever Nash comes up the inevitable excuses begin to follow about his lack of quality line-mates.  It’s hard not to be reminded of this Paul Hunter article from about a year ago.  The message is one many Toronto fans nodded in agreement with – a great goal scorer shouldn’t need others to make him better; he should make others better.  The purpose of the article was to diminish faith in Brian Burke’s acquisition of supposed franchise sniper, Phil Kessel.  In many cases, it worked, but the same does not seem to apply to the infallible Rick Nash.  If you’re going to give up a ton of quality assets for this player, isn’t it time to evaluate him honestly, through the same lens that an athlete in Toronto or Philadelphia might be viewed?

With that in mind, let’s look at some factors that will determine the value of Rick Nash:

1.) The No Movement Clause

The only sensible comment from the ‘insiders’ on this whole story has been from Bob McKenzie, who cleverly pointed out that Rick Nash is unquestionably the one driving the bus in this situation.  Like with Brad Richards before him, it appears Nash has been asked to help the franchise out and move along.  The thing is, in this situation it is enormously difficult for a manager to milk as much as possible out of the return.

Put yourself in Rick Nash’s shoes: would you want to go to a Maple Leaf team that gave up all its youth and promise to acquire you?  Would you want to go to a Rangers team that shattered their team chemistry to put you in a starring role?  Certainly no other players with the dreaded No Movement Clause have allowed their managers to do such a thing, and a I doubt that, even if another manager were willing, Nash would let that happen.

As McKenzie pointed out, there are at most five teams Nash is willing to consider moving to.  That’s a very short list, and at least one or two of the possible suitors are in no position to make a serious bid.  The two or three executives who are involved in this process and making serious offers are going to be aware of the limited ability Howson has to drive up price.

At the end of the process, Nash is still going to take the offer that best suits him.

2.) Salary and Cap Hit

Damien Cox made an astute comment on Twitter yesterday:

Don’t forget, you’re not just trading for Nash the 27yrold. Also Nash at 32, at 33. Worth $7.8 m cap hit then?

A little hard to believe, but Cox makes an excellent point.  Nash’s salary also increases as the contract goes along.  He will make the most money at 32 and 33 years old.  Essentially this means that unless Nash sees his production increase with age, which is highly unlikely, he’s pretty much as valuable as he’s ever going to be right now.

It’s true that his No Movement Clause becomes a No Trade Clause in the final two years of the deal, which would make his massive cap hit eligible for the Wade Redden plan if he’s not performing, but the GM who buries Rick Nash – the Canadian hero – will likely be crucified.  He would have to be playing in Scott Gomez territory to merit that demotion, but even playing at a 40 or 50 point pace would make that contract hard to swallow.  Brushing aside the details of a contract because it can be buried is short-sighted and unrealistic.

With every other under-performing, high-salary player that’s ever been moved, the return has been severely hampered by the salary and cap hit of that player.  There is little reason to believe this won’t be the case with Nash as well.

3.) Timing

It has been suggested to me that Nash will return more because of the timing of this deal.  Howson is looking to maximize the return by trying to create a bidding war at the trade deadline – a time where the biggest mistakes take place and managers traditionally overpay, even for mediocrity.

While this argument has merit, the proposed bidding war is likely to be between just two or three teams.  In that scenario, it’s unlikely either manager is going to be willing to do Howson an enormous favor and save his job and correct all his mistakes by giving up a king’s ransom for Rick Nash.

4.) Recent Trade History

Mike Richards is, to date, the most expensive player to be traded in the cap-era NHL.  He returned Paul Holmgren a package including Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a 2nd round pick.  Richards has a far more desirable contract than Nash, his production has been superior, he plays the more valuable pivot position, and his contract offered no movement limitations – which is to say, 29 teams could have bid on him. At the other end of the spectrum, expensive name brand players with No Movement Clauses have returned almost nothing.  Joe Thornton was traded to San Jose for peanuts. Brad Richards, who is perhaps the best comparable given age and the size of his contract coupled with a fall off in production (again attributed to line-mates), was moved to Dallas in exchange for shootout specialist Jussi Jokinen, back-up goaltender Mike Smith (four seasons later, Smith is just now a starter – for another club), and a fourth round pick; a far cry from the lavish packages being suggested for Nash.  Richards had a Stanley Cup ring, a Conn Smythe trophy, and his contract ended at age 30.  On paper, his career has been far more successful than Nash’s has.

More than anything direct comparisons can tell us though, perhaps the biggest factor regarding recent trade history is the complete failures of the most recent big trades.  Mike Richards has been a shell of his former self in Los Angeles and Jeff Carter has fallen off the map while the young unproven talents those teams traded for them have flourished.  After the Phil Kessel trade, managers backed right off of trading first round picks.  The way that deal blew up in Brian Burke’s face caused everyone to think twice for a long time, and the same could happen here with Nash.  Certainly those associated with the Kings seem to feel that way, judging by this comment from team official Luc Robitaille:

‘He’s a special player…but, you can’t give up the house to get one player.’

5.) Reputation

For all the factors that might limit his value, there is no denying that Nash is one of the most highly thought of players in the league.  While part of that might be the obscurity which Columbus affords him, there is no question that he has also earned a great deal of respect from those in the hockey world.   Steve Yzerman did pick this man to line up next to Sidney Crosby on the grandest stage of them all, and he was a big part of Canada’s effort to capture gold at the Olympics in Vancouver.

More than this though, it seems people – fans and media and hockey people alike – just want to see Nash in a better situation.  People want to see him succeed.   For whatever reason, it appears that most are happy to just brush the criticisms and questions aside and accept that Nash is a special player who deserves more.  That might be more difficult for the team who has to start paying his enormous wage on a regular basis, but for now that atmosphere of euphoria over potentially landing a huge star seems to be reigning supreme.

So what kind of return are we talking about for Nash?

As a result of the respect that Nash commands, I suspect his return will not be as limited as the lower spectrum trades in the cap era.  However, I also feel that the obvious distress of the Columbus Blue Jackets will not invite other management executives to swoop in and save the franchise by supplying them with the optimal return they are seeking.

If you were to lay out all the trades for star players since the lock-out in order of least return to greatest return, I suspect that Nash will fall somewhere in the neighborhood of Jeff Carter (Voracek + 1st round pick + 3rd round pick).  I do not see Nash getting the same kind of return as Mike Richards was able to command, but at the same time, his reputation alone should keep him above the levels of Brad Richards and Joe Thornton.   A trade of that magnitude from the teams rumored to be involved might look like this (were salary and cap hits not a concern):

Boston: Marchand, 1st round pick, Caron/Knight
Toronto: Schenn, 1st round pick, Scrivens/Colborne
Los Angeles: Bernier, 1st round pick, Voynov/Loktionov
New York: Dubinsky, 1st round pick, Johnson/Kreider
Philadelphia:  VanRiemsdyk, 1st round pick, Gustafsson

Now, more might be involved in trades like this in order to make salaries and cap hits work, but the point is that teams are only going to be interested in taking on that massive contract if they can give up expendable assets and carry on relatively unhindered.  None of the teams rumored to be involved are looking to dismantle their farm system or their NHL club in order to bring in Rick Nash.  At the end of the day, part of trading a big star is accepting that you have to make good on potential in the exchange.   It is the duty of the Columbus manager to turn the 1st round pick in these trades into a gem.  It is not the job of the acquiring manager to hand the Columbus GM already developed gems waiting to burst onto the scene.  The managers who do this usually lose the trade and sometimes lose their job.

Bottom line: Nash is a star in the NHL, but he is not a superstar.  His trade value should reflect that.

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More from The Hockey Nerd:

Trade Winds: Evander Kane
Trade Winds: Mike Komisarek
Trade Winds: Jeff Carter
Trade Winds: Ryan Suter
Trade Winds: Chris Stewart

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