Sometimes, when you make a trade in sports, you know you’ve forever altered the course of your franchise. It might work, it might not, but you’ve committed to making a bold move and will have to live with the result.
Exactly five years ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets made that kind of gamble – and largely won.
On July 23, 2012, the Blue Jackets shipped their all-time leading scorer, best player, team captain and franchise identity Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. The move, which also sent defenseman Steven Delisle and a third-round pick that would become Pavel Buchnevich to the Broadway Blueshirts, netted Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a 2013 first-round pick.
“We can all move forward,” Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said at the time. “Rick's been a great player, but we're real excited about where we're going.”
Five years later, Nash and Buchnevich remain Rangers while Dubinsky is locked into a contract through 2020-21 in Columbus. The other pieces have come and gone, and the ones that remain have become building blocks with their teams, to the point it’s almost hard to imagine them in their previous lives.
For Columbus, this has turned out to be a good thing.
This is not a piece written to rip Nash. His stats in Columbus – 289 goals and 258 assists for 547 points in 674 games, not to mention leading the team to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, The Goal, and his Rocket Richard Trophy and All-Star appearances – were sterling. He remains the best skater in franchise history and that legacy will be celebrated in the end.
But it was clear at the time of his deal that a page needed to be turned, and it’s clear now that turning that page was essential to what has become the continuing development of the Blue Jackets franchise.
Nash’s high-water point as a Jacket was clearly that 2008-09 season in which the team made its first-ever Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance. Nash had 40 goals and 79 points in 78 games that year while leading the team to 92 points, by far its best mark to that point.
But the following seasons were nothing short of disasters. Head coach Ken Hitchcock was let go midway through the next campaign, a 79-point season and last-place finish, only to be replaced by the tumultuous reign of Scott Arniel.
By the end of the 2011-12 season, the Jackets had gone 95-116-30 in a three-year span. The team had tried everything – new coaches, new styles and new personnel, as exemplified by the Jeff Carter trade that was followed shortly by another Jeff Carter trade.
Nash was still pretty good that season – 30 goals and 29 points in 82 games – but it was time to try something different. A reboot after three consecutive losing campaigns was an obvious answer, and so much – probably too much – had been placed on Nash for too long. Bringing in multiple talented players and the potential to add even more through draft picks was the way to go in exchange for the team's lone superstar.
Not everything worked, of course. Erixon was thought by some to be a potential standout blueliner but was traded after just 52 games in union blue and has become an AHL regular at 26. The first-round pick, a key part of the deal, turned out to be Kerby Rychel, who was flipped for defenseman Scott Harrington last year.
The work of Anisimov and Dubinsky helped the Blue Jackets to immediately become a better team. Their first season, the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, ended with a furious rally behind some new goalie named Bobrovsky that came a tiebreaker short of a playoff appearance. The next year, Columbus won its first-ever playoff games – I think we all remember Dubinsky’s role in that – and the Jackets posted the best season in franchise history this past year.
Sure, it’s not all been sunshine and rainbows. The 2014-15 and ’15-16 seasons were among the most frustrating that have been seen in Columbus. Anisimov was eventually dealt to Chicago as part of the original Brandon Saad trade, showing just how fluid NHL roster situations can be and leaving Dubinsky as the last piece of the puzzle still in Columbus.
But by and large, five years since the Nash trade, Columbus has started to find its identity as a franchise, brick by brick. It appears to be a team on the upswing, now under the regime of John Davidson, Jarmo Kekelainen and John Tortorella. Talk around the franchise is now about more than making the playoffs but making an impact when the team arrives.
Whether this would have happened under Nash is a question that cannot be answered. He’s had good times in New York, including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and has remained a very good player even if his production has started to show signs of waning with age.
But really, it’s a question that also doesn’t need to be answered. The Jackets knew five years ago when they pulled the trigger on the deal it would define the path for the franchise. As we sit five years later, it appears to be a path slowly but surely forward.