There is little doubt winger Rick Nash and the Columbus Blue Jackets are headed for a divorce. But there is no shortage of NHL general managers who think it will be a protracted break up that won't be final until this summer, instead of a quickie, Las Vegas-style split by Monday's trade deadline.
Those voices don't necessarily include Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson, who was too busy to talk Thursday, probably because he was putting the finishing touches on the Jeff Carter trade with the Los Angeles Kings.
Nash wasn't talking either. He declared earlier this week he will not discuss anything trade-related with reporters.
The Carter trade is another reason to think Nash will not be moved until the summer, if only because it took one of the major suitors, the Kings, out of the running.
But there were certainly signs Thursday the Blue Jackets are preparing for the imminent departure of the man who served as their only franchise player in their modest 12-year history. The team's media room at Nationwide Arena was being touched up to handle a big crowd should Howson pull the trigger by the deadline.
However, in the words of one NHL GM who has an interest in Nash: "This is a summer deal." The way this fellow sees it, the price is just too high for anyone to take the plunge right now and a Stanley Cup contender runs the risk of giving away too much to make landing Nash worthwhile.
But the winter auction is serving to whet the appetites of many – and they may be prepared to deal come June, when it's easier on the salary cap.
While Howson offers no confirmation, the price is thought to be at least one significant young NHL player, a top prospect and a first-round draft pick. The team getting Nash also has to take on his $7.8-million (U.S.) salary cap hit, which runs for six seasons beyond this one.
Add it all up, says the GM who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and it's a stiff price for someone he describes as a "complementary player" rather than a franchise player such as Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman. Nash, 27, is an all-star scorer who has 279 goals in 652 NHL games since 2002, but he has only scored 40 or more goals in a season twice, most recently in 2008-09.
It can be argued Nash has never played with a decent centre in his years with the Blue Jackets, who have one playoff appearance since joining the NHL in the 2000-01 season. When he has – such as with Joe Thornton on a couple of Canadian international teams – the right winger can light it up spectacularly.
True enough, but that still does not make him a true franchise player who can carry a team on his back. The trouble is, Howson is asking for that kind of price, which is giving other teams pause.
The most common comparison to a potential Nash trade is the Thornton trade of November of 2005. Then-Boston GM Mike O'Connell decided Thornton, who was 26 at the time, was not going to be the superstar centre who could lead the Bruins to a championship. O'Connell traded him to the San Jose Sharks for defenceman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.
The only player on the current Bruins roster connected to that trade is defenceman Andrew Ference, who arrived in a February of 2008 deal along with Chuck Kobasew for Primeau and a draft pick. That goes a long way toward explaining why O'Connell is a former GM of the Bruins.
Our anonymous GM doesn't see the Thornton comparison as applicable to Nash. He prefers to look at the more-recent Phil Kessel trade, because he thinks Kessel is a similar player to Nash – a superior sniper who can be an important part of a good team but not someone who is willing or able to be the face of a franchise.
Even though Kessel is finally paying dividends for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season with 64 points in 60 games before Thursday, GM Brian Burke paid a superstar's price to get him from the Bruins. The cost, two first-round draft picks (used on forward Tyler Seguin and defenceman Dougie Hamilton) and a second-round pick (Jared Knight) are still debated hotly on Toronto radio call-in shows whenever there's a slow day.
Finally, the GM offered a caveat to his prediction of a summer deal: He said you never know when a general manager feeling the pressure to make the playoffs will overpay for someone like Nash.