Hockey Bigger Than Any Player – But One

By HOWARD BERGER

LOS ANGELES (July 23) – Let me begin this blog with a statement of fact that I ardently hope will curb the hysterical tone of emails flooding my Blackberry in-box: the Toronto Maple Leafs were involved in the Rick Nash trade discussion to the same degree as the Kansas City Royals, Golden State Warriors and Manchester United… in other words NOT AT ALL. Brian Burke could have offered Scott Howson a package that included Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner with no reply from the Blue Jackets given that Nash had contractual authority over his destination and did not want to play in Toronto. End of story.

Now, to the myopic multitudes that believe Howson got fleeced by the New York Rangers because Columbus did not obtain a player of comparable ability: May I inform/remind you where the Blue Jackets placed in the overall standings last season with Nash in the line-up? If you do not know – or have forgotten – it was 30th in a 30-team league; nine points in back of the 29th-place club (Edmonton); four spots and 15 points behind the Godforsaken Maple Leafs! Given the oft-neglected principle that hockey is neither golf… nor tennis… nor poker… but, in fact, a team sport, it would hardly have mattered if Nash were dealt for Sidney Crosby on Monday. No club as wretched as the Blue Jackets can be fixed by one player. As with the situation in Toronto, it is a long-term project, or a no-term project.

This is not to imply that the Rangers made a bad deal; Nash is a terrific acquisition for the team and the hockey denizens of New York. But, the Jackets are in a far-better position right now with three picks in the first round of next year’s draft (and a versatile forward in Brandon Dubinsky) than they were with a gifted, charismatic goal-scorer that took them absolutely nowhere.

RICK NASH TAKES TO THE ICE (ABOVE) FOR HIS FINAL GAME WITH COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – AGAINST NEW YORK ISLANDERS (BELOW) – ON APR. 7, 2012 AT NATIONWIDE ARENA.

BOTH PHOTOS: JAMIE SABAU, GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

It’s the point I’ve made over and over with desolate fans of the Blue and White that fall head-over-heels in love with a player like Kessel. The mere notion – presented, several weeks ago, in this corner – of trading Fast Phil before the deadline next season prompted wailing repugnance. “You idiot, Berger, how can you even think – let alone write – that the Leafs should trade a potential 50-goal scorer?” The answer is simple: Though he’s performed as anticipated, Kessel has not yet been a 40-goal scorer in the NHL. Moreover, had he connected on, say, five additional chances last season – raising his goal output from 37 to 42 – Leafs may have missed the playoffs by 11 points instead of 12. In the words of the late, great Carroll O’Connor: “Whoop-dee-do!”

Young hockey fanatics such as those in Toronto and Montreal – entirely oblivious, through no fault of their own, to reward or achievement – pine for anything beyond what is average. If that comes in the form of individual brilliance, so be it.

“What a heist Brian Burke pulled getting Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul from Anaheim!”

“Gardiner was a revelation – one of the best rookies in the NHL last year!”

“Kessel and Lupul were among the most potent scoring tandems in the league!”

All true. Yet, which club were you watching when the playoffs began on Apr. 11? Certainly not the team with Kessel, Lupul and Gardiner; it hasn’t made a Cup-tournament appearance in nearly a decade, falling wide of the post-season by double-digits in four of five attempts since the 2006-07 campaign.

But, don’cha dare trade that “50-goal” scorer.

Here’s my take: Show me a club with no star players other than a reliable, unyielding presence between the pipes and I’ll show you a contender. Only net-minding can abridge the team concept in hockey, as proven by the current Stanley Cup champions. Jonathan Quick was – and is – the Los Angeles Kings: himself unheralded until a remarkable, Conn Smythe performance. Others stepped up along the way: Dustin Brown; Anze Kopitar; Jeff Carter; Dustin Penner; Drew Doughty. Good, clutch players, without question, yet beneath the stratosphere of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, Henrik Sedin – maybe even Kessel and Nash: none of whom came anywhere near Lord Stanley’s mug in 2012.

So, maybe hold off on judging the Nash deal, simply because the Blue Jackets didn’t acquire a comparable, big-name star to keep them ensconced in the league basement. Let’s see what happens with Ryan Murray – the No. 2 pick in last month’s draft – and the trio of first-rounders the Jackets have next June.

And, let’s compare Columbus to the Maple Leafs three years from now.

It could be rather intriguing.

Email: howardLberger@gmail.com

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