In writing this article, I was concerned as to whether its lateness would be an issue, but, when it comes to the Columbus Blue Jackets foray – if that’s what you want to call it – into free agency, being a week late doesn’t really matter.
When Scott Howson tells you his most important priority for the UFA signing period was acquiring a fourth line center, that tells you a lot. Such a statement is usually reserved for a consistent Stanley Cup playoff participant, not for a team who’s missed the playoffs, for the eighth time in their nine seasons.
Almost a week after the Unrestricted Free Agency (UFA) period began, and all the Blue Jackets have to show for it is their waiver-wire acquisition of Ethan Moreau. This type of move doesn’t exactly inspire one to bolt to acquire their playoff tickets, does it?
To be honest, when the story broke on June 29th that the Edmonton Oilers had placed three players on waivers, after looking at the names, their age, their injury history and their salary, I was convinced that Scott Howson wouldn’t touch any of them as a waiver claim.
Then, on June 30th, the Blue Jackets claimed Moreau off of waivers.
The first question I had to ask myself was ‘why’? Why claim a 34-year old left wing? This organization has only one position glut, and of course, it’s at left wing.
Then, I asked: Why spend the $1.75 million on an oft-injured player, particularly in recent seasons? Didn’t they have this issue with Frederik Modin, for his final three seasons in Columbus?
I then pondered: The sixth player acquired from the Edmonton Oilers, since Scott Howson’s arrived at Columbus? Sure, I’m aware that this was Howson’s former employ, but, a little more “outside the box” thinking would be appreciated. And, on that subject, which team had the worst record in the NHL, last season? That’s right, it was the Edmonton Oilers.
Finally, I asked: Why not obtain, via UFA, a puck-moving defenseman, their most glaring hole, particularly if they truly intend to go with an up-tempo system, with that same money?
I guess you could say that I experienced the 5 stages of fan grief, all in one organizational move.
Then I looked at Howson’s history on UFAs, trade acquisitions or waiver claims, for the first three years of his tenure as Blue Jackets General Manager (GM). In doing so, I matched those patterns against specific criteria, in the following order:
- Affordable players
- Young players
- Players with affordable, multi-year contract terms (if via trade)
Then came the trade, last December, to acquire Chris Clark from the Washington Capitals, for speedy winger Jason Chimera -there were other players involved, but, with follow-on deals, this is what was, essentially, the trade.
The rationale for the trade was explained as to acquire some veteran leadership and a presence in the locker room. This was also the rationale for the Moreau acquisition, as both he and Clark were their former respective team’s captains.
With these moves, it apparently put an end to the criterion used for acquired players – if anything, the priorities had shifted. It also put an end to the speculation that former head coach Ken Hitchcock was essentially calling the shots on personnel moves. In particular, the Clark move was believed to be a move to appease Hitchcock, as the team was in the midst of a freefall, and Clark appeared to fit the mold of a Hitchcock-esque gritty, two-way, leadership-type player.
After all, this move, as well as the Rusty Klesla contract extension, the decision to not buy out Frederik Modin’s contract and the Mike Commodore UFA signing all appeared to have Hitch’s fingerprints (of influence) all over them.
As this is now Scott Howson’s team, that notion doesn’t hold weight.
Those factors, aside, what’s most concerning is the implications on acquiring players strictly based on leadership. In short, what does this really say about the leadership in the Blue Jackets locker room? Specifically, what does this say about the leadership, or lack thereof, of it’s Captain, Rick Nash?
When Adam Foote was traded, in February, 2008, Nash was approached by Ken Hitchcock about taking over the reigns of team captain. Nash, like so many of Hitchcock’s former protégés` – Brett Hull and Eric Lindross, was asked to be captain for leading by example, having transformed his game, under Hitchcock, from a one-dimensional player (a scorer) to a two-way, well-rounded star. It would stand to reason that Nash would be the logical choice to succeed Foote.
What followed was quite puzzling – Nash responded by saying he wasn’t sure if he was quite ready to take on the captaincy. Were I in Ken Hitchcock’s position, that response would have pretty much ended it; however, shortly thereafter, Nash was named the Blue Jackets captain. For a team that had lost their leader, there was not much choice.
While the Blue Jackets did make their first ever Stanley Cup playoff appearance, Rick Nash didn’t exactly exhibit the fire most often associated with a captain; however, in making the playoffs, any concerns were put to rest, at least for that season.
During last season, however, both Nash and the leadership group often met with Hitchcock to correct the team’s downward spiral, and it’s apparent lack of compassion towards winning and consistently, to use the Hitchcock lexicon, competing.
But, if a future Hall of Fame coach like Ken Hitchcock endlessly tried, but couldn’t, motivate a group of player to compete, then who could? This spoke volumes of the leadership void, and the lack of compassion, that the team exhibited.
Aside from the leadership void, then came the question as to the cost of the acquisitions of Clark and Moreau. Their combined salaries are $4,125,000. For a budget team, particularly one whose goal is to change the direction of the organization, both moves are even more puzzling. Both players have a history of injuries, particularly Moreau. Neither player have ever been known for their goal-scoring ability.
The new direction of the team, or so has been proclaimed by Scott Howson, is to change from a sedentary, two-way, tight-checking team, one with a plethora of stay-at-home defensemen, to that of an up-tempo team, one loaded with plenty of puck-moving, offensively-oriented blue-liners.
Instead, they acquire two veteran forwards, thus limiting any maneuvering in free agency.
To put it in numbers, here’s what the Blue Jackets could have acquired in lieu of picking up Moreau:
- Mike Comrie – $1.125 million – 29 years old – and a center, something the Blue Jackets have a dearth of
- Kyle Wellwood – $1.2 million – 27 years old – also a center
Now, add to that Clark’s salary, and, with the $4.25 million – Moreau and Clark – the following puck-moving defensemen could have been acquired via free agency:
- Derek Morris – $3.3 million – 31 years old
- Dan Hamhuis – $2.5 million – 27 years old
- Jordan Leopold – $1.75 million – 29 years old
What is the common theme with the players listed above? They’re all within the organization’s budget, they’re all relatively young, and they all have more offensive upside than Moreau and Clark do, or ever had. Thus, a better fit for the proposed up-tempo system Scott Howson and Scott Arniel wish to employ.
So, what does this tell us? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. At best, the acquisitions seem to be inconsistent with Howson’s previous moves – at worst, it speaks of desperation, possibly the reaction to, or frustration with, a constrictive ownership group. Above all, it speaks of glaring concerns with the current leadership group.
So, for the remaining weeks of the UFA signing period, one team that won’t be active are the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ve apparently met their low-reaching needs, and, in doing so, have underwhelmed their long-suffering, loyal fans.