The New York Rangers ended more than two years of trade speculation Sunday by acquiring Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Rangers gave up Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick to secure the coveted forward.
The deal went over well in New York. Reactions seemed to vary from moderately positive to extremely positive. The Rangers' own website reads, front and centered in big letters, "The Nash Era is Here!" The consensus is clear: this is what the Rangers needed.
And it's easy to see why many would look at the trade as a steal for New York: Nash is one of the most consistent scorers in the league and has at least 30 goals in seven of his nine seasons. On top of that, not only did the Rangers keep all of their top-tier players (Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, etc.) but they weren't even forced to part with a promising young player like Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan or Chris Kreider.
Looking at the return the Blue Jackets received, though, I began to wonder, do the Rangers really come out any better?
First off, I'll just say I'm not talking long-term, because it was clearly a deal made for the now. The Rangers gave up a very promising defensive prospect in Tim Erixon and a first-rounder, along with two established players both younger than Nash. For the long-term repercussions, I suggest you check out Douglas Flynn's article on NESN.com. It sufficiently sums up a lot of the potential difficulty that the Rangers may have ushered in with Nash.
What I'm looking at is simple, and it boils down to a few key points:
Brandon Dubinsky is a very good hockey player.
Dubinsky was an exciting player for the Rangers for a few years. During the 2007-08 season—his rookie season—Dubinsky had 14 goals and 26 assists. Each of the next three seasons, he increased his points totals, culminating in 2011 when Dubinsky set career highs in goals (24) and assists (30). At just 24 years old, he seemed to be developing into a potentially great player.
Then last season happened. Dubinsky started out dreadfully, scoring his first goal in his fifteenth game, He didn't manage a second goal for another 17 games, well into December. He finished the season with a career-low 10 goals and 34 points, and quickly became a topic for Rangers fans to bemoan.
But there are a few other stats that help paint a picture: the Rangers were sixth in the league in goal-differential and Brandon Dubinsky was fourth among Rangers—second among forwards—in plus/minus, at plus-16. He trailed only defensive studs Ryan McDonagh and Michael del Zotto and rookie phenom Carl Hagelin. Plus/minus is not the most indicative of stats, but it's an accurate portrayal in this case.
Dubinsky had 207 hits this year (fourth on the Rangers) to go with 36 blocked shots and 37 takeaways. Among Rangers with at least 40 faceoffs, Dubinsky had the best win-percentage at 51.9 (though he was used just over nine-percent of the time). The season before last, Dubinsky was again the team's best faceoff man, taking 20-percent of the draws and winning 52.4 percent. He was also second on the team in takeaways (first among forwards).
So to summarize, Dubie reliably scored double-digit goals from the start, quickly jumping into the 20-goal range. Then he has his worst year, but still manages to be among the team's best defensive forwards, just as he's been in years past. For some reason, though, it seems like no one can take their eyes off of the 20-point drop and just sour on him.
Artem Anisimov is a talented depth player with upside.
Anisimov has only had three seasons in the NHL, but they've all been good.
Don't get me wrong—no one will accuse Anisimov of being an All-Star, but in each season he's put up between 12 and 18 goals, 16 and 26 assists and 28 and 44 points. He's averaged under 15 minutes per game so far in his career, but seems poised to take on a larger role.
To go with moderate offensive ability, Anisimov adds size, strength and defensive play. In 2010-11, he was third on the team in takeaways with 48, along with 74 hits and 45 blocked shots. Last season, he had as many takeaways as Dubinsky (37) to go with a consistent 75 hits and 46 blocked shots.
Anisimov is the sort of player that goes out there at the end of a game with Brandon Prust or Brian Boyle and just dazzles, playing well out of his ability and making a seriously clutch play. It won't happen often, but it's in there somewhere. He's a great bottom-six forward.
Rick Nash has not proven he is more than just a very good player.
Nash is about as consistent as they come. He was drafted first overall in the 2002 entry draft. Since then, he's played nine seasons and has been pretty great. He scored 30 goals all but one year since his rookie season, and has not fallen below the 54-point low he had in his third season. He twice hit 40 goals, once leading the league (though with only 41).
On top of all of that, he's a solid two-way player, a shorthanded threat (14 goals), a power-play option (83 goals) and fairly clutch (44 game-winners). And he's only 28.
The problem is, he hasn't looked like a league-leading scorer in quite a while. He hit career-highs in assists (39), points (79), plus/minus (plus-11), shorthanded goals (5) and average ice-time (21:10). Since then, his numbers have slowly begun receding. He's had fewer points each year, dropping back into the 50s for the first time since 2007. He's scored a total of four shorthanded goals in the three seasons since, and hasn't managed more than 33 goals.
The external factor here is that the Blue Jackets have been terrible much of his career. No disrespect meant toward the team or franchise, but Nash was by far the most talented player on that roster, and the team really wasn't equipped to play competitively against the better teams in the league.
One could surmise that it's his team that brought his career plus/minus to a staggering minus-71 (minus-19 last year). And maybe everything will change when he gets to the Rangers.
But what if it doesn't? I'm saying what if he's psyched neither up nor out by playing in Madison Square Garden, if the talented players around him fail to help boost his numbers and he continues on the decline that has been in motion since 2009? What you're left with then is a good-to-very-good two-way forward who will score at most 30 goals and 50-something points?
Well, that sounds an awful lot like the expectations people had for Dubinsky going into this past season.
I'm not trying to argue that Nash can't be a great player. He's had an impressive career despite playing in a city that didn't notice its own team and opted to sign long-term with them in order to become a better hockey player under then-coach Ken Hitchcock.
But now Nash is nine seasons into his career. At this point, he's probably not going to significantly improve, and you can just sort of hope he stays at that level for a while. He's already locked-down through the 2018 season with the league's fifth-highest cap-hit, so there's no immediate pressure for him to perform. If he does perform, it means what? Forty goals?
Now pretend Anisimov and Dubinsky were still around. The potential ceiling would be lower, certainly, but you'd have two 20-somethings who should still be improving their games, one of whom has already proven he can put up 50 points and 24 goals, the other not too far behind. Is turning the two of them into Nash really going to affect the team?
It doesn't seem like it. Dubinsky and Anisimov play pretty similar styles to Nash, so really the Rangers are just compacting their talent in Nash. Unfortunately for them in that process, they lose some scoring and defense.
And Tim Erixon.
And a first-round pick.