As December approaches, a quick look at the standings reveals that the two worst teams in the NHL so far this season are the New York Islanders (16 points in 21 games) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (15 points in 23 games). What’s interesting about these two teams is that they both feature former 1st overall picks (Rick Nash in ’02 & John Tavares in ’09), both of whom are committed long term to their respective teams. While other former #1 overall picks (such as Fleury, Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane & Stamkos) have gone on achieve great success around the league, and others like Hall & RNH seem poised to do something special in Edmonton, one can’t help but wonder how these two cellar dwelling potential superstars feel about their current plights, and whether hockey fans should feel bad for them for having to ply their trade for straight up awful teams.
Consider the case of Rick Nash. Entering his 9th season as a Blue Jacket, Nash has demonstrated the ability to be a prolific scorer in the NHL, netting 30+ goals in 6 of 8 previous season, breaking the 40 goal barrier twice and tying Iginla & Kovalchuk for the league lead in ’03-’04 with 41. During that time, however, the Blue Jackets as a team made the playoffs just once, in ’08-’09, and were promptly swept by the Red Wings.
It was after that season that Nash (then age 25) agreed to an extension with the team, signing an 8-year deal that will keep in in Columbus until the end of the 2018 season. On that day, GM Scott Howson said the following:
- Rick is a Blue Jacket. He is our captain, the foundation of our team and one of the elite players in the National Hockey League and we are very happy that he will continue to call Columbus home for many years to come. This is an important and exciting day for our franchise and our fans.
Coming off that playoff appearance, and amidst speculation that he would possibly become a free agent and sign with his hometown Maple Leafs, Nash willingly chose to make a commitment with the Blue Jackets as he was entering the prime years of his career. And while he did have $62.4 million reasons to do so, you have to think that he believed that management was equally committed in terms of building a winner around him. Having said that, all you have to do is take a look at the team’s dismal draft record & list of franchise scoring leaders to understand that any confidence Nash may have in the Columbus brain trust may indeed be severely misplaced. While they did make some moves this past off-season (bringing in Jeff Carter & James Wisniewski), the fact is they stumbled terribly out of the gate and are unlikely to qualify for the playoffs again this year. To date, Nash has not asked to be traded, and appears committed to seeing his contract through to the end while attempting to help turn things around.
The fact is that Nash is being paid huge dollars to play hockey for the Blue Jackets, and had every opportunity to free himself from Columbus if he so desired. Whatever factors led him to make that decision – whether it be a confidence in management, a desire to stay with one team his whole career or simply a desire to play outside of the limelight – Nash willingly signed the long-term extension that will keep him in Columbus until the age of 34 and therefore has to deal with all that comes with being a Blue Jacket through the bulk of his prime playing days.
The situation with Tavares is similar, yet a bit different at the same time. Now in his 3rd season on Long Island, Tavares has yet to truly break out in the NHL. He scored 67 points in 79 games during his sophomore campaign, and is currently on pace for less than a point per game this year. The Islanders as a team have struggled over the past couple years, and while
many some expected Tavares & Co. (featuring some decent young pieces like Grabger, Okposo, Moulson, Niederreiter & Hamonic) to push for a playoff spot as early as this season, they once again find themselves at the bottom of the East.
Prior to this season, however, Tavares inked a 6-year extension that will keep him on the Island (barring a franchise relocation) until 2018. Like Columbus, one only has to look at the Islanders recent draft picks & questionable management decisions (too many to cite here) to wonder what it is that Snow et al told Tavares to convince him that remaining an Islander for the better part of the next decade is a good idea. What’s different with this situation is that by the time Tavares’ extension expires, he’ll still only be 27; unlike Nash, he will still have several prime years left in his career. Should the Islanders fail to become a contender or even a playoff team in the next 6 years, he’ll have collected his $33 million and will be free to pursue other options with plenty left in the tank to make a meaningful contribution elsewhere.
Which brings us back to the original question – should we as hockey fans feel sorry for this pair? The answer to that has to be a no. The reality is that they both willingly chose to sign long-term extensions with their respective clubs. End of story … sort of. In looking at situations like these, it’s important to take into account both sides of the coin: on one side, there’s the players commitment to the team, and, on the other side, there’s the teams commitment to putting some decent pieces around that cornerstone. Surely Nash was feeling better about things after having come off his first playoff appearance, and Tavares does appear as though he genuinely believes in management & his teammates. At the same time, the recent histories of both organizations would suggest that putting too much faith in the suits upstairs is not the safest bet, and one runs the risk of signing on for much of the same for the entire term of the contract.
At the end of the day, these guys get what they’re being paid for; they’re both being compensated nicely to play a game they love, albeit without the added component (to date) of achieving success at the NHL level. Put that way, it’s very difficult to stir up too much empathy for Nash & Tavares.
And hey, at least Canada can count on them both making contributions to the World Championship efforts every May, right?
End notes: The one guy that it’s possible to feel somewhat bad for is Nash’s new teammate, Jeff Carter. Riding high as a Flyer (only 2 tears removed from a Cup Final appearance) & after having signed a long-term extension of his own in Philly in 2010, he’s shown the door and shipped of to Columbus … To go with a point above, however, he’s still being paid nicely to play hockey … Puts this post in perspective a bit as ‘long-term’ isn’t always that – who knows, maybe Nash and/or Tavares find new homes sooner than we think. But unlike Carter, there’s nowhere to go but up … And for those who forget how good Nash can be, there’s this: