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Signs point to Rick Nash making a difference with Rangers

Rick Nash skates with young players at the

Rick Nash skates with young players at the Rangers' training facility in Greenburgh. (July 25, 2012) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Look: There's big Rick Nash, dekeing one, then another Phoenix Coyotes defenseman, then cutting across the crease to finish a dazzling scoring sequence that was an ESPY nominee for "Play of the Year" in 2009.

Watch: Against Detroit, Nash scores three unassisted goals in a game, the most since Rocket Richard had four in 1948.

Of course, in this YouTube generation, the streaming highlights can make a second-pair defenseman appear comparable to Bobby Orr. But there's much more to Nash, the newest Ranger, who arrived last week from Columbus in the trade of the offseason.

Listen to Keith Carrigan.

It was 1994, the year Mark Messier & Co. won the Stanley Cup; Nash, a Maple Leafs fan, was 10 years old.

"He came to practice focused on improving, focused on learning, a real student," said Carrigan, who coached the youngsters of the Toronto Marlboros. "When I'd call the kids over, you know how it is at that age, some wouldn't even be paying attention. Not Rick. He'd look me in the eye and I remember feeling . . . as if he was looking right through me."

As important as technique and strategy were, Carrigan said, the boy had something that couldn't be taught.

"If we were in the last minute of the game, down a goal or tied, didn't matter, he felt he had to be on the ice," said Carrigan, who coached Nash for five years. "He wasn't pushy, and it wasn't only so he could try to score. He wanted to be out there, to make a difference somehow. And that has not changed."

Now 28, Nash, a distinguished winger with a resume that includes five All-Star appearances, an Olympic gold medal and seven seasons of between 30 and 41 goals, is a Blueshirt, acquired in the hope that he can be the missing piece for a gritty team that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

"This changes the complexion of our team," Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said. "You don't get a chance to make a deal like this very often."

Sather isn't alone in that assessment.

"Where do you find a 6-4, 235-pound guy with hands, who can skate, is entering his prime, with limited miles on him -- although every night he was the No. 1 focus, tightly checked, man-on-man, because teams knew if you shut down Rick Nash, you beat Columbus?" asked Doug MacLean, who drafted Nash first overall in 2002 and was the Blue Jackets' general manager from 1998 to 2007. "Now people are telling me he's overrated. Are you serious?"

Don't be fooled by the low-key demeanor, said MacLean, who compared Nash's personality -- and development -- to former Red Wing and Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman. "Quiet guys do their talking on the ice," MacLean said. "When Stevie was captain, and I was in Detroit, at first he struggled a bit, but he matured and as he was surrounded by better players, he went to another level."

Growing up near Toronto in Brampton, the ninth-largest city in Canada, Nash was an averaged-sized youngster, according to his father, Jamie. "Rick played lacrosse because I wanted him to learn how to take a check," he said. "When he was 14 or 15, he grew about six inches, a late bloomer."

Nash had a brush with Osgood-Schlatter syndrome, a very common, benign variety of overuse injury that occurs in knees of athletic adolescents, Carrigan said. The bones grow so fast that tendons and muscles are unable to keep up, which leads to a lack of flexibility, but it disappeared within a year, he said.

And Nash took off, earning OHL rookie of the year honors with the London Knights, scoring 66 points in 58 games. In Columbus, at 19, he became the youngest player in NHL history to lead the league in goals, with 41.

The talent was evident, with 289 goals and 258 assists in 674 games with Columbus, but the numbers translated to only four playoff games in his nine-year tenure.

Disappointed and frustrated midway through last season, Nash asked out of Ohio with six years left on his contract, figuring that management could receive, in exchange, the parts to rebuild again. He wanted to go to a contender. "I definitely would have hoped to win there a lot more," Nash said. "But the reality is, it didn't happen."

As the trade winds blew, the skeptics emerged. Was Nash ready for coach John Tortorella's regime? What about the ballyhooed microscope of media-heavy Manhattan?

"I know what Torts is like," said Carrigan, the chief executive of BFI Canada, a multinational waste-management services firm. He remains close to Nash and attends many games. "Rick will accept that. He played for Hitch [coach Ken Hitchcock], who's not easy, either, and there were times I was pretty tough on those kids myself."

As for the scrutiny, MacLean says many athletes live with a degree of anonymity in New York -- unless they prefer to be more visible.

"It's worse in a small market sometimes," he said. "Rick couldn't walk around Columbus without being recognized. New York? I think he goes there and excels."

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