The Columbus Blue Jackets are in full-blown “December Swoon” mode, having gone 3-9-3 since their historic 14-6-0 start.
While this is taking place once again, Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson is continually preaching the same themes:
“The fix is from within”
“I believe in this team”
“We have an entire new coaching staff” (in response to criticism that only one roster change was made over the summer)
Once again, the Blue Jackets are faced with the prospects of another disappointing slide, the effects of which were reflected by the fans in a 25% drop in Full-Season Equivalents. For a team with mounting losses due to a bad arena lease, another massive drop in attendance might be the back-breaker towards the team possibly beginning to sell and move the team to another market.
Yet all the while, Howson is preaching patience and one gets the feeling that any trade discussions are minimal, if going on at all.
While new head coach Scott Arniel has done a exemplary job in his first season, he certainly knew the challenges going in and is certainly cognizant that the team’s issues of the past: an overall lack of scoring; defensemen who are not skilled at moving the puck through all three zones of the ice, something so critical to Arniel’s system; a team who is mentally fragile, just waiting for the first sign of adversity before folding; a former franchise goaltender whose return to past glory seems like a distant memory and the list goes on.
Yet any coach – Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake and even Jack Adams – knows that without talent, you are destined for the same levels of ineptitude. Ken Hitchcock, who was fired for his inability to get the team out of its doldrums and was reputed to not be able to get along with younger NHL-level talent, is looking pretty good right about now.
Let me be frank about my feelings toward this team – they are my team and I wish nothing more than to see it be a success. However, when I see the continued mistakes and disappointments, particularly to those far-too loyal fans, I cannot sit idly by and think that a rebound is forthcoming or that this is merely a funk that all teams go through. They’ve been going through these funks for nine of its ten seasons, save for one playoff run which now seems like both an aberration and a distant memory.
And while I am often viewed as negative about how this team’s on-ice product is managed, no one would be more pleased to be proven wrong than myself.
But, I would like to draw reference to some articles I wrote earlier in the year, articles which sadly have become reality:
On the team’s dysfunctional direction: http://insidehockey.com/?p=7904
On its lack of making a signature move when solid, economical resources were available in Free Agency: http://insidehockey.com/?p=6884
On the puzzling necessity to re-sign Steve Mason especially coming off of a dreadful sophomore season: http://insidehockey.com/?p=8470
On a failed second attempt at successfully transitioning former first-round draft pick Nikita Filatov to the NHL level: http://insidehockey.com/?p=14629
Howson felt that, with the re-signing of Mason, the singular addition of Ethan Moreau from the Edmonton Oilers’ waiver wire and the return of Filatov would be all the changes necessary to allow the Blue Jackets to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Well, if you’re scoring at home, that appears to be 0-for-3.
Add to that last year’s moves – as documented Bart Logan’s latest article – to lock up Rusty Klesla and Derick Brassard, one of which is serviceable (Klesla) and the other who has been both disappointing and seemingly timid (Brassard) not panning out, and one wonders why Howson is not considered to be on the hot seat.
Hitchcock can no longer be the reason this team is not succeeding. In fact, Hitchcock may have been a Band-Aid for far deeper problems that continue to exist: A lack of successful drafting of talent, a lack of player development and the continued lack of a bona fide first-line center, a first pairing defenseman and a franchise goaltender.
With all of these changes – on non-changes – Howson, whether he wanted to or not, signaled to the fans and to the organization that it is now his team.
It’s no longer the Doug MacLean mess he inherited, it’s no longer Hitchcock’s failings as a coach and it’s no longer the constrictions of being a budget team – the Blue Jackets’ payroll is 19th in the NHL and third in the Central Division – blame can no longer be cast on anyone but Howson.