The Columbus Blue Jackets are in an interesting position. As it stands, they’re in line for the first overall pick come June’s Entry Draft, with a 9-point ‘lead’ over the Edmonton Oilers. They’re also in the nasty business of trying to deal a super star, the face of their franchise, and a former first-overall pick in Rick Nash.
Conventional and popular logic both dictate that the Blue Jackets trade Nash away for an impressive package of prospects, picks, and potentially NHL players, and select dynamic winger Nail Yakupov to take his place. The Sarnia winger is an electrifying talent with goal-scoring ability, who could one day match or exceed Nash’s production and become the next Russian superstar.
But is that the best course of action for the Blue Jackets? Maybe, but maybe not.
Let’s go back to the last time the Blue Jackets owned the first overall pick in 2002. They ended up selecting Nash from the London Knights, with the pick that was originally owned by the Florida Panthers. Florida swapped out of the first spot with Columbus, getting the third overall pick in return. While Jay Bouwmeester was widely regarded as the likely number one pick, Columbus was concerned with the Atlanta Thrashers in the second spot, who had yet to declare whether or not they were leaning towards Nash, or Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Columbus got who they wanted in Nash, Atlanta chose Lehtonen second overall thanks to some incentive from the Panthers, and Florida selected Bouwmeester, who they would have taken first overall anyways. At the time, it was a win-win-win for everyone, especially Columbus.
Now, it’s a different story. Both Lehtonen and Bouwmeester have been traded, and with everything that’s happened with Nash lately, it seems inevitable that it becomes 3-for-3. But Nash lasted the longest with his team out of the three of them, and it would be hard to convince someone that Lehtonen’s Thrashers or Bouwmeester’s Panthers really had that much more success than the Blue Jackets.
What Nash did differently than the other two was simple. He fit in.
You see, the reason why Nash fit so well with Columbus was because he was willing to embrace the Ohio lifestyle, something that we’ll never know if Lehtonen or Bouwmeester could have done to the same extent. In a State that was all about College football, Nash embraced that passion, while taking it as a challenge to help Columbus compete with the beloved Buckeyes. And just as quickly as Nash embraced Columbus and Ohio, the city and state reciprocated the feelings, quickly elevating him to star status.
Fast forward to today, and that’s the challenge that faces Columbus now. They’re not just choosing a player first overall, but they’re choosing a new face. A new namesake. Someone to keep them on the map of Ohio sports and embrace the lifestyle as well as the fanbase if Nash is gone.
You have to wonder if that player is Nail Yakupov.
While markets are similar in the NHL, no market is the same. In Columbus, you need a star who is interactive and who is going to be able to intrigue the fans with his personality. Someone who will buy-in to where he is. This isn’t Toronto, or Calgary, or Detroit. In those places the high-end talent doesn’t need to be fluent in the language or culture, they just need to be fluent in hockey. As much as everyone loves scoring and exciting hockey, Columbus is one of those markets that needs a nearly-home grown star.
If you didn’t grow up in the culture, or close enough to understand it and adapt, you will have trouble succeeding. And while he’s got all of the talent in the world, that would be the biggest hurdle for Yakupov to overcome if he’s suddenly made the face of the franchise. And alone in Columbus, you have to wonder if he can handle that.
The best situation for Columbus is the least realistic one: Find a way to keep Rick Nash.
At that point it is really just a two-step plan, but the second step has a couple of conditions. The first step is easy: Fire Scott Howson.
That's the obvious step. After Howson threw Nash under the bus, it's difficult to see the two co-existing with the Blue Jackets beyond this season.
From there, you’d have to apologize profusely to Nash and convince him Columbus is the place he can win, while promising that the team will do anything to prove it. The Jeff Carter experiment failed because Carter never wanted to be in Columbus in the first place, so anyone that was brought in would have to be convinced it’s a good situation.
That leads us to our second step, which is a little more work. Starting off, let Nash take a look around the NHL and consider who he wants to play with. Whether it’s a free agent or trade option, make the necessary inquiries to land Player X, while Nash makes the sales pitch.
If that doesn’t work, then move on to Part B of Step 2: Draft Mikhail Grigorenko.
While you can always approach Nash about the possibility of playing with Ryan Johansen, the Jackets are a team that need more high-end prospects at all positions. While Yakupov is a good place to start on the wing, strength and depth down the middle is a great way to build a franchise, and that’s what the talented Grigorenko gets you.
In the end, it’s hard to believe that this is even an option at all. The way it will likely go for Columbus is that they trade Nash, get the assets back that they feel they can rebuild with, and then cross their fingers that they can become relevant in the hockey world.
When it comes to the first overall pick, whether it’s Grigorenko or Yakupov, it’ll be difficult task for Columbus to rebuild themselves as a focal-point franchise in their market with one of those two as the face. Even with one of the high-powered Russians they could take at the top of the draft, it just doesn’t seem like there will be the same fit off the ice.
That’s why if Nash is dealt, that marketable player needs to come back through the trade that sends him out of town. It’s no slight to Yakupov or Grigorenko, but at best it’s a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to see if they can be the kind of player that will believe in their surroundings and bring in the fans.
In the hockey sense, the two of them are all-world talents. But if they can’t forge a relationship with the fans of Columbus, the team may be looking for a new location on the hockey map.
Bryan Thiel is a freelance columnist for 'In the O'. Along with filing feature reports for OHL television broadcasts, he'll bring you insight and opinion on the OHL and it's stars. You can follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.