SUN Hockey Pool

Nash a work in progress

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

Whatever happened to Rick Nash?

Whatever happened to the kid who took the NHL by storm three years ago when, at 19, he became the youngest player ever to win a scoring title?

Whatever happened to the junior sensation with Mario Lemieux's size and Brett Hull's finish who GM Doug MacLean was going to build his franchise around after drafting him first overall in 2002?

After potting 41 goals in 2003/04 to pocket the Rocket Richard trophy alongside Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk, Nash battled knee and ankle injuries early last year before a second-half surge landed him 31 goals in 54 games. Impressive totals, no doubt.

However, the Brampton, Ont., native was invisible in Turin with Team Canada, his Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs and now sit dead last once again.

To date the 6-ft. 4-in., 215-lb. power forward has just seven goals and eight assists on a team that has little chance of winning unless he scores.

"He's carrying the weight of the franchise and I think it's affected him -- it's a lot to carry for a 22-year-old," said MacLean yesterday as his team boarded a Calgary-bound plane for tonight's game.

"You're not a franchise player at 22 like Jarome Iginla is at 27. He's getting lots of chances and it's just not happening right now. I wish I could say he's a bad kid but he's not. He's just going through a bad time."

Compounding issues, the coach he liked was recently replaced by defensive taskmaster Ken Hitchcock, who is vowing to turn Nash into something he's never been: Responsible at both ends of the ice.

"The best players want to be out on the ice all the time so we're really focused on having him out there killing penalties and adding dimensions to his game," said Hitchcock, who wants to up Nash's conditioning so he can increase his 18 minutes of ice time.

"He was really receptive to it. He wants to be known as the total package. It's a new focus for him and he's really working hard at it."

Having coached Nash at the Olympics, Hitchcock figures it was there the left-winger realized he had to be better away from the puck.

"You can't score every night in this league -- there are just too many good players," said Hitchcock.

"This way he can have an impact even when he doesn't score. Guys like (Marian) Hossa or (Alex) Ovechkin are good at creating their own turnovers. He can too with his size and speed and that's what we're trying to get him to do."

Nash figures the change in approach won't hurt his goal totals but is willing to take that chance.

"I wouldn't say I'm concerned -- it's just another aspect and the goals will come along hopefully," said Nash.

"(Hitchcock) has that reputation of bringing the best out of his players so it's an exciting time. It would be nice to be in that category with Iginla and (Joe) Sakic and do something I haven't done much of, like penalty kill."

MacLean likes to point out Nash went from minus-35 in '04 to plus-five last year and has no doubt Nash will soon be talked about as a superstar once again.

"Sure I feel pressure -- as the years go on and we lose veterans the young guys feel pressure to step up," said Nash. "But tons of guys on this team can score goals."

Preventing them is an entirely different issue.


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