Two years removed from inception, the Columbus Blue Jackets were rudderless when they selected Rick Nash with the first overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Nash, a behemoth of a winger who evoked comparisons to Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan for his enviable combination of size and scoring ability, was unfazed.
"Seems like a great situation to step into, so I'm very happy," Nash told the CBC at the time.
It wasn't, of course. The Blue Jackets had finished dead last in the Western Conference that year, struggling more than they did in their uninspired inaugural season, but Nash was the unflappable type. This only became clearer throughout his stellar NHL career, which came to an unceremonious end Friday after 15 seasons. Reeling, still, from the concussion he sustained last March, Nash announced through his agent that he's done playing hockey, as the risk of further brain injury is "far too great."
Through no fault of his own, Nash - who didn't bother fielding offers in free agency this past offseason amid persistent post-concussion problems - was constantly beset with something as a player, be it lousy teammates or an injury to his back, groin, or, too frequently, his head. In his nine seasons with Columbus, despite Nash's Herculean efforts, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs just once. With the New York Rangers, who acquired him ahead of the 2012-13 campaign, Nash was frequently ailing and eventually became a shell of the player he once was. Still, while circumstance rarely seemed to swing in his favor, Nash's talent and resilience nevertheless enabled him to compile one of the finest resumes of his generation.
In 1,060 games split between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, and, briefly, Boston Bruins (who landed him from New York ahead of last year's trade deadline), Nash potted 437 goals - tying him with Pavel Bure for 67th on the all-time list - while adding 368 assists. His comparably modest position on the all-time points leaderboard - with 805, he's tied with Milan Hejduk for 161st - evinces that he was often alone out there when he was at his most dominant, before the injuries started to pile up.
In his first season with Columbus, an 18-year-old Nash finished third in Calder Trophy voting and tied Tyler Arnason for second in points among rookies - behind only Henrik Zetterberg - with 39. The following year, Nash blossomed into a bona fide star, leading the NHL with 41 goals to become the youngest player ever to nab the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. (Ten players have scored that many goals in a season before turning 20, with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among them.) He also earned his first of six All-Star nominations that year, cementing himself as one of the game's most prolific scorers.
From that superb sophomore campaign through 2011-12, only Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Dany Heatley put the puck in the net more times than Nash, a paragon of consistency who remained tireless in his efforts to lug the perpetually moribund Blue Jackets into the postseason. Once, he actually succeeded, carrying Columbus in 2008-09 to its first-ever playoff berth with a career-high 79 points. The Blue Jackets proceeded to get swept in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. Nash, who was named the team's captain just a year prior, scored a goal and notched two assists in the series for a team-high three points.
After three more decidedly on-brand campaigns - a minimum of 30 goals per, that is - Nash, who signed an eight-year extension only two seasons earlier, was traded to New York. He stills owns the Blue Jackets' franchise records for games played (674), goals (289), power-play goals (83), short-handed goals (14), game-winning goals (44), goals per game (0.43), and assists (258). But while Nash's talents went mostly to waste in Columbus, he was a boon to Team Canada on international ice, most notably helping his country secure a championship at the 2007 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships and a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Quickly, though, after a terrific performance (42 points in 44 games) in his first season with the Rangers - the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign - Nash's effectiveness waned as his health problems increased. A concussion sustained early in 2013-14 precipitated his least productive seasons, in terms of total points and points per game, since his rookie year. His equally disappointing postseason - 10 points in 25 games - gave him a playoff reputation he never managed to shake.
Nash, then 30, rebounded with aplomb the following season, scoring a career-best 42 goals in 79 games, but decline rapidly set in; over the next three seasons, while battling a litany of groin, knee, back, and concussion problems, Nash averaged only 66 games per year, never once eclipsing 23 goals or 38 points. And now, nine months after his latest concussion, Nash's career is done, months before his 35th birthday.
And it's a tragically fitting end to a career colored by rotten luck. Nash spent his best days on an awful team, after all, and couldn't stay healthy - or approximate his former self - once he finally got to play for a contender. Bad luck is an occupational hazard in professional sports, though, and Nash still carved out a damn fine legacy in spite of his. Most athletes would kill to be so unlucky.