Nash learning to wear captain's Jacket

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

COLUMBUS -- The way Ken Hitchcock sees it, those criticisms of Rick Nash were grossly unfair.

You know the one, that suggested the Columbus Blue Jackets young star was only concerned about goals. That he didn't care in the least about the defensive game. That he didn't care about winning as much as putting pucks in the net.

No, the way Hitchcock sees it, Nash was simply doing what he was told to do: A good soldier concerned mainly with putting pucks in the net to excite the fans.

"He wanted to be a player, but he considered himself a goal scorer because, from a promotion aspect, that's what was needed here," Hitchcock said. "But for us to win, we need him to be a player."

Nash the goal scorer is well known. He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2003-04, his second year in the NHL.

Nash the player, that's a work in progress, but further along than people realize.

The first overall selection in the 2002 draft, has long been the face of the Blue Jackets.

But it's now his team, proven in a big way when he was named captain last week.

"I've been here almost since the start, not the first two years and that's it, but it's been good," he said of the promotion. "We have a young franchise, and I think it's important to have a young leader.

"My game's matured quite a bit. Early on in my career, I was just used in offensive situations, playing 13 (minutes) a game, but since Hitch came here it's penalty kill and the last minute -- 20 minutes a game.

"You start to learn good defence leads to offence. I was minus-30 (actually, minus-35) one year and now my plus-minus is better and the team's better overall. Look at all the top players in the league, like Iginla and (Joe) Sakic, and they aren't just offensive players. They're complete players."

Of course, there was something of a baptism by fire when Hitchcock burst onto the scene.

Soon after being named head coach last season, Hitchcock decided to use the 6-ft.-4, 218-lb. left winger as a penalty killer.

He wanted Nash to understand he has to win head-to-head battles with the game's top players, much in the same way Mike Modano had to do with Dallas, albeit with the likes of Jere Lehtinen at his side.

"We had to put him in value situations and then he had to have success," Hichcock said. "You can't have a captain you put in situations of value -- penalty killing, powerplay, playing against the other team's best players -- and then not have success. The system doesn't wash well.

"We were able to do that and he was successful, especially on the PK, and that gave him value in the room.

"Nasher is in a position right now where he knows exactly what to do, but he's not sure what to say, yet. Our challenge is to get him to say the things that he feels. He knows what's right and what's wrong, he knows what's happening and can see it and feel it, but he has to learn through the summer the right things to say.

"When I talk to him about issues, he knows what happened and what needs to happen, but he's not able to say it because he hasn't had that experience.

"To me, that's the final step, captains able to say what they feel."

Which is the next step for the player who'll turn 24 in June. On the horizon is taking a bigger role in the dressing room. It's a step Iginla had to take, too, and Nash knows it.

"It was a huge step being named captain. Now I've got to take on more of a leadership role," he said. "I've been an assistant captain two years, trying to lead by example on the ice, but I think I've got to take a jump in the dressing room, start being a leader in there."


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