Rick Nash makes Rangers Cup favorites

Rick Nash provides the Rangers with another big offensive asset. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- For about three weeks this summer, New York Rangers center Brad Richards knew a Rick Nash trade was close. The Rangers had asked him for his thoughts about the Columbus captain and it was clear a deal was highly likely. He just needed to be patient.

Richards woke up every day hoping there was a message from the team saying a deal was done.

"Kind of like the lockout," he said, smiling, during a chat at the Rangers' practice facility Thursday.

On the afternoon the trade was finally completed, Richards got the call that was it was going to happen. On July 23, Nash was acquired from the Blue Jackets in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick. Richards met Nash in New York on his first night in the city as a member of the Rangers and took him to dinner.

"I was the happiest guy in New York," Richards said.

On Thursday, we saw exactly why. With John Tortorella watching from above at the Rangers' training facility in Greenburgh, Richards centered a line with Nash on one side and Marian Gaborik on the other. Now, we realize Tortorella changes lines as fast as any coach in the league, but watching this trio fly by on the ice sparked a reminder of exactly what this trade meant to the Rangers. They were already a Stanley Cup contender without Nash; now they become a Stanley Cup favorite.

"They looked good in those white jerseys out there," said Taylor Pyatt, another newcomer who adds forward depth, a big body and willingness to step in front of any shot. "That's a lot of talent on one line."

It is.

Richards has played with some great players. He won a Stanley Cup setting up Martin St. Louis in Tampa. In Dallas, the trio of Richards, James Neal and Loui Eriksson was probably one of the most underrated in the league.

But when it comes to pure goal production, Richards hasn't had anything like this -- players on either wing capable of posting a 40-goal season over 82 games.

The assumption was made when Richards was signed before last season that he'd pair up with Gaborik, click immediately and help wipe out the Rangers' goal-scoring struggles. That didn't happen. Richards struggled to start the season as the adjustment to New York wasn't immediate.

"I was a little off-the-charts awful at times," he said. And his style didn't exactly mesh with Gaborik's.

"He's so good one-on-one, where I'm not a one-on-one player. I use people," Richards said. "We both kind of learned, I need to do that a little more, he needed to do his a little less. When it did, in March, we played really well together. It was a lot of fun."

The chemistry between Richards and Nash should be more immediate. Nash said he already noticed Richards putting the puck on his stick where he wanted it Thursday. Nash's game suits Richards' style because he's a straightforward player, he takes the puck to the net. If this trio sticks together, Gaborik can find openings on the ice while Nash bangs down low and in the corners, and it could be an incredible combination. It would be a line unlike anything Nash has played with in non-international competition.

Nash's former team, the Blue Jackets, have never had a center even close to Richards' ability and production. On Thursday, Nash was asked which Columbus center he had the most chemistry with during his time there and he paused for a moment and said Andrew Cassels. That was eight years ago.

"He was a guy that just looked all the time to dish," Nash said. "He was looking all the time. I had a lot of success with him."

So Cassels knows what it takes to succeed with Nash and what doesn't work. He saw plenty of the latter during Nash's recent seasons in Columbus.

Nash isn't being utilized properly if he's bringing the puck through the neutral zone. He's at his best when he can pick up speed on his own and get the puck just before the opposing team's blue line or inside the other team's blue line. Richards will figure this out if he hasn't already.

"He has a head of steam and he's a big guy and goes to the net hard if he can get the puck in those areas," Cassels said Thursday. "Defenders have to cheat to him, which opens up other options. If you can get him the puck by going to the net hard, there are going to be rebounds. He creates so much offense just by driving to the net."

There's a theory with Nash that he didn't always bring his best game while in Columbus. That the losing wore him down and that a steady decline in goal production (40 goals in 2008-09, then 33, 32 and 30 last year) was a sign that he wasn't always engaged.

You'd see him on the big stage, such as the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and he was often the best player on the ice in a tournament filled with future Hall of Famers. But a Tuesday night blowout loss in Nashville? Maybe not the same player. It's understandable.

So the flip side to that theory is that the big stage of New York and the immediate playoff chase that begins the moment the season starts will light a fire under the competitive Nash. In an Atlantic-heavy schedule, every game will be close against a key rival, then comes a postseason in which the Rangers are expected to make a long run.

"Definitely, I think when he's in clutch games or big games or tight games, that's when he plays at his best," Cassels said.

But there's more to the theory as to why Nash should thrive in New York. Ken Hitchcock, who helped coached Nash in the Olympics as well as during his time in Columbus, doesn't see it as much as a motivation issue as a distraction issue.

In Columbus, he was the face of the franchise. He was the captain. There's pressure when you're traded to New York, where you're expected to win a Stanley Cup, but there's just as much pressure being asked to carry an entire franchise.

"Rick is at his best when he's just able to play hockey," Hitchcock said Thursday. "He's at his best when he is able to come to the rink and play and not worry about all the other debris around the game. What happened in the Olympics is that other people looked after the debris, his focus was on playing only. When you watched his dominance -- he was dominant in Columbus when he had other people, older players who handled some of the leadership stuff so he could just play."

That's exactly what he faces in New York. This is a team created in John Tortorella's image, it's his identity. Ryan Callahan is as good a captain as there is in the NHL. There are big personalities such as Henrik Lundqvist, Richards and even Martin Biron, who probably will draw a bigger crowd of media on a daily basis than Nash simply because Biron's a great storyteller.

Nash can just score goals, and he's not even the most accomplished goal-scorer on his current line. That's Gaborik, with two 40-goal seasons in the past three years.

That's not to say there's no pressure. There is. Especially when you're hailed as the player who can bring the Rangers another Stanley Cup.

"It's a different animal when you have an off night in New York. It's a little different than Columbus," Richards said. "We have people here who have been there. He can just float in and he doesn't have to worry about it -- I'm sure it got pretty heavy on his shoulders in Columbus every year, with everybody wanting him to take them here, there and everywhere."

New York still could use more depth on defense and the scoring may be a little top-heavy if Tortorella sticks with that first line. But even during an informal skate Thursday, you could see the immense talent and even better, you sensed the urgency.

This is a team ready to win now and Nash is a big reason why.

"I know it's one guy," said Cassels, who called the Rangers a Stanley Cup favorite, "but when you add a guy that good to a lineup that's already good -- that's another dimension."