Changes On Tap in Columbus?

After Thursday night’s disgraceful 7-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, it has become abundantly clear that Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson needs to make a change. A big change. Or five.

Ken Hitchcock was not the problem. The future Hall of Fame coach may not have been the best bench boss for the current incarnation of the Union Blue, but the problems lie deeper.

Hitchcock got the axe because, as the old saying goes, you can’t fire the team. So when the team began its death march last November, he became the scapegoat. He was a stickler. He stressed defensive responsibility too much. He couldn’t manage the “dynamic” young Blue Jackets forwards. He was the only thing keeping Nikita Filatov from scoring 50 goals — after all, he did score a hat trick. Once.

Enter Scott Arniel, by all accounts an up-and-coming coach with a wealth of experience developing young players. Through 20 games, and a franchise best 14-6-0 record, it appeared that Howson and company had been vindicated of responsibility, but the core issues of his tenure were still there, waiting to reveal themselves.

Now Arniel finds himself in a frighteningly similar slide down the standings as the one that cost Hitchcock, the only coach to get Columbus within a whiff of the postseason let alone its only appearance, his job. Hitchcock’s frank assessments about the Blue Jackets young players appear more and more justified by the day, and Howson’s gambles have yet to pay off in the slightest.

Sept. 4, 2009: The Columbus Blue Jackets ink center Derick Brassard to a four-year $12.8 million extension prior to the start of the third and final season of his entry-level deal. What had he done to merit such a hefty extension? Why he registered 11-16-27 through 48 career games. He had been forced to sit out the final 57 games of the 2008-09 season because of his second career long-term shoulder injury. Brassard posted 36 points last season, spending the majority of the season in the top six. He has 21 points so far this season, the first of his lucrative new deal, but has yet to show more than a glimpse of his October 2008 rookie of the month form. At what point does the 23-year-old stop getting a pass?

Oct. 3, 2009: Just before opening night, the club announces that defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who has missed 30-plus games due to injury three times into his eight-season NHL career, has been signed to a four-year extension that will pay him $2.975 million a season. Klesla of course is a sentimental favorite among Blue Jackets brass and fans, being the club’s first ever draft pick, and is coming off a terrific performance in the Union Blue’s sole playoff appearance. As terrific as one can have in a four-game sweep where Columbus was outscored, 18-7. He missed all but 26 games last season due to injury, and although he had a promising start this campaign, has looked overmatched of late. In the salary cap NHL, can you afford an oft-injured second pairing defenseman — third on a good team — at nearly $3 million?

Sept. 20, 2010: Rather than risk waiting until the summer of 2011, when 2009 Calder-winning goaltender Steve Mason would be a restricted free agent, Howson signs him to a two-year $5.8 million extension. This signing came on the heels of a disastrous sophomore campaign, and the third-year netminder appears to be having a repeat performance this season. He was clearly hedging his bet that Mason would bounce back, that Hitchcock was the problem, not the insecurity issues of a ninth-grade girl.

That’s just a sample size.

The Blue Jackets are a self-professed “budget team” sitting about $5.6 million from the salary cap ceiling according to CapGeek. For a budget team to be successful — let alone a budget team hemorrhaging millions because of an awful arena lease and dwindling attendance —  it needs to do so through player development.

Howson has tried to jump ahead of the curve, locking up young players before they prove their worth, hedging that the investment will pay off and they’ll grow to fit those $500 metaphorical designer jeans. Those clamoring to see 2007 first-round draft pick Jakub Voracek signed to an extension this summer, prior to beginning this final season of his entry-level deal have since quieted. Voracek just might have to play out the length of his contract to earn that extension. What a novel concept?

Free Agency has not exactly been Howson’s forte, as back-up goaltender Mathieu Garon’s signing has been the only unquestionable success. When $4.75 million a season for Krisitan Huselius is considered one of the better signings, issue should be raised. Of course, everyone aside from fourth-line forwards (not named Derek Boogaard) gets overpaid in the silly season, but paying Mike Commodore $3.75 million to stuff his face with popcorn up in the press box is bad business. Period.

As for the trade market — the best way for budget teams to improve outside of internal growth — Howson has yet to make one of merit since the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. The roster as a whole is has seen very, very little turnover from the 2008-09 playoff season, which wouldn’t be an issue if the Blue Jackets were a playoff calibre team, but they’re not. Would they have even been close to the post season that year if it weren’t for Mason’s otherworldly rookie campaign?

It’s unfair to lump the burden of the Blue Jackets’ failures soley on Howson, as they were on Hitchcock last season. Maybe an amateur scouting department that has yet to produce a surefire top line forward (not named Rick Nash) or top pair defenseman with 10 top 10 picks in 11 drafts needs a shakeup? Yes it’s too early to begin to judge the likes of John Moore and Ryan Johansen (you could argue Filatov… poorly) but history is not exactly on their side. The Blue Jackets’ later round history hasn’t been a resounding success either.

Perhaps the blame should be lumped on the player development side? Should such an integral position as director of player development for a budget team be subject to the nepotism, as was clearly the case with the appointment of Tyler Wright? Wright’s contributions to the Columbus community during his time as a player and now as a coach cannot be overstated, but is that merit enough?

In the end though, Howson is the one making the final decisions. This is his team, his brainchild. He needs to be held accountable for the good and the bad. “Bad” may be a relative term when compared to the Doug MacLean years, but that’s not a free pass.

Twitter: @bart_logan

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One Response to “Changes On Tap in Columbus?”

  1. Ed Cmar
    December 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    Bart: Awesome article! Darn you for taking some of my venting thunder away (wink) – I just wanted to say how ‘spot on’ you are. Kudos!