Rebuilding Rick Nash

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

CALGARY -- If there's anyone who knows about the type of growing pains Jarome Iginla is going through, it's Rick Nash.

Not because the two shared a line with Sidney Crosby at Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp.

But because both snipers found themselves having to significantly alter their style of play upon introduction to defensive-minded coaches.

While Iginla's slow start this year is directly attributable to the new regimented system Brent Sutter brought to town, Nash's total makeover began three years ago when Ken Hitchcock got hold of the kid who'd scored 41 goals as a 19-year-old.

"Before he came, I was playing 12 minutes a game on the powerplay only," said Nash, 25. "He came in and said, 'the best player on the team plays in every situation' and he pointed to guys like Joe Sakic, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Stuff like not leaving the zone too early, always getting pucks out and not cheating offensively for a breakaway ... It was tough to change my game, but it definitely works once you get it down."

Picked first overall in 2002 and blessed with a freakish size/speed/skill combination scouts dream of, the six-foot-four, 220-lb. Brampton, Ont., native was clearly destined to be one of the game's top snipers. But upon being hired by the rudderless Blue Jackets in 2006, Hitchcock could see Nash was capable of much more and has since transformed him into one of the game's best overall players.

"I'm a much more complete player," said Nash.

"Once he explains how all your good offence comes from solid defensive play, it's tough to listen to until you actually try it. There were a couple seasons where my goals were down and it was tough, but as I play better defensively more offence comes. Most of all, the team is winning and that's what matters at the end of the day."

Hitchcock now feels Nash is playing the best hockey of his career, which helps explain the Jackets' 5-2 record, pretty solid, despite a 6-3 loss last night in Calgary. To emphasize the point, Nash scored a brilliant shorthanded goal in the game while the Flames had a two-man advantage. Nash now has eight of the Jackets' last nine shorthanded markers.

"If you can't put your top player out there against the other teams' top players you're not going to win very many games," said Hitchcock of the Nash he inherited years back. "Rick has reached a time when we're not afraid to match him up against the other team's best players. He kills penalties. When we're down two men he's the second man out there and at the end of the game he's out there. He's bought in. He's dependable and is willing to do all the hard, ugly, nasty things to be a top player against other top players."

And he still scores, bouncing back to the 40-goal club last season and leading Columbus to the playoffs.

While previously thriving under Darryl Sutter's defence-first regime, Iginla is clearly struggling under the new system to date.

"You have to be willing to sacrifice personal things for the betterment of the team," said Sutter, referring to Nash but alluding to Iginla. "That's the way we want our players to be -- competing on both sides of the puck."

So, does Nash, 25, have any counsel for Iginla?

"I don't think I'm in any position to give advice to Jarome," laughed Nash.

The kid has learned well.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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