Who’s To Blame for Blue Jackets’ Mess?

The Columbus Blue Jackets currently possess the worst record in the National Hockey League (NHL) at 1-8-1.  Until Tuesday’s victory against the Detroit Red Wings, a game in which the Red Wings had to start backup netminder Ty Conklin due to the birth of starting goalie Jimmy Howard’s first child, the Blue Jackets had won only one game in regulation in their prior 30 games played.

The frustration of their fans is at its all time high as approximately 9,000 fans per game had attended the prior three home games, only buoyed (15,100) by the appearance of 5,000-6,000 Detroit fans, which represented the worst three-game attendance stretch in their history. 

Their defense, or lack thereof, has been amongst the worst in the NHL.  While statistically the Blue Jackets rank 10th in shots against, the quality of shots are generally of the unobstructed variety.  Case in point, when Dallas Stars Jamie Benn recently swooped through the Blue Jackets defensive unit to score an easy goal, a goal which was highlighted – or was it lowlighted? – on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption

Steve Mason has not been awful as he had statistically been amongst the lowest-rated goalies in the NHL but he has not been great, either, failing to make a key save or to possibly steal a game. 

The offense is ranked 27th in the NHL with an exact two goals per game, as the Blue Jackets have scored exactly two goals in every game this season.

An injury to a key performer – recently acquired Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers – has hampered the offense while the 8-game suspension of James Wisniewski has hampered the offense due to a lack of a legitimate power play quarterback.  While a suspension of this length is unprecedented, injuries in such a brutal sport are a common occurrence and teams, especially the elite teams, endure them.

Adding to the malaise is the fact that Blue Jackets’ ownership deepened their pockets and allowed General Manager (GM) Scott Howson the luxury of increasing their payroll to just under $64 million which ranks 4th in the NHL in overall team payroll.

So with all that, it begs the question:  Who’s to blame for this mess?

I’ve decided to analyze where the blame occurs by category – Senior Management (President, GM – Acquisitions, Trades, Player Development/Drafting) and player performance (Coaching, Locker Room Culture/Leadership, Offense, Defense, Goaltending), not by individuals although individuals prominently are to blame in specific categories.  So here is who is to blame for the Blue Jackets mess:

Senior Management:

President – this category primarily rests with Blue Jackets team president, Mike Priest.  It was Priest who hired, after a lengthy two and a half search process, GM Scott Howson.  While Howson’s resume sparkled with regard to being adept at managing (as an Assistant GM) the Edmonton Oilers – a small market NHL team – salary cap, the Oilers were also one of the lowest-ranked NHL teams during that six-year Assistant GM period, having qualified only once for the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Could such a decision been a case of “paralysis by analysis”?  Perhaps, but what was odd what that Priest chose a GM from a struggling organization rather that pursue a GM candidate from one of the elite NHL organizations.

Priest also chose not to hire an advisor to assist Howson after a disastrous finish to last season and calls to do so.  It’s understandable that Priest is not a “hockey guy” – Priest, to his credit, has made no assertions that he has any more than casual knowledge of the sport.  So, there should have been a mechanism in place to provide oversight that solid on-ice management decisions were being made.

General Manager (GM)– this category starts and ends with GM Scott Howson.  Howson was allotted the opportunity to spend near the NHL’s salary cap limit but has fielded a team that has yet to win a game.  In firing former Head Coach Ken Hitchcock who guided the Blue Jackets to their only Stanley Cup playoff appearance and by hiring his successor Scott Arniel Howson, whether he chose to accept it or not, assumed the mantle that this organization’s on-ice fortunes were his, and his alone.

Acquisitions:  During the 2010-2011 season, Howson made the risky decision of not making one notable change to his team’s roster, this coming from a team who finished 14th out of 15 Western Conference teams during the previous season.  Howson chose to place his team’s fortunes on hiring an entirely new coaching staff, a decision that resulted in the Blue Jackets finishing 13th out of 15 teams and created fan apathy and discontent to the tune of an over 2,000 drop in overall attendance, contributing to its $25 million financial losses (although their prior lease agreement contributed to the majority of these losses).

Howson has made the following unsuccessful Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) acquisitions since assuming the reigns as GM:  Mike Commodore, who struggled after his successful initial campaign, after being signed for $18.75 million over five seasons; Kristian Huselius, who has been an inconsistent performer after being signed for $19 million over four seasons; Sammi Pahlsson, who has struggled as a shutdown center since being signed for $8.25 million over three seasons.

Trades:  Howson has had a mixed level of success with trades – the successful:  RJ Umberger, Fedor Tyutin and Antoine Vermette – and the unsuccessful:  Chris Clark and Dick Tarnstrom, amongst others.  But it’s the trades that Howson has not made that has come under criticism, an example being when Howson chose not to make any trades when the Blue Jackets went into two consecutive freefalls after two consecutive successful starts.

Capology:  Howson has also chosen to allot contract extensions for players who have mostly disappointed:  Rusty Klesla, Kris Russell, Marc Methot, Derick Brassard and Steve Mason, the last of which was done after Mason suffered through a horrid 2009-2010 campaign.

And in acquiring via UFA untested Nashville Predators organization goaltender Mark Dekanich, Howson also “rolled the dice” by choosing to stay with Mason as his franchise netminder even after Mason struggled through another season in the Blue Jackets’ net.  Mason has been near the bottom of the NHL’s goaltending statistics for each of his past two seasons and continues to struggle so far this season.

Drafting:  Howson also chose to keep his senior scouting staff – Director of Amateur Scouting Don Boyd and Director of Professional Scouting Bob Strumm – intact for each of his first four seasons as GM, only choosing not to renew their contracts during the off-season.  It was believed that Boyd was the one constant in a legacy of horrible 1st and 2nd round draft choices with only one successful draft pick in Rick Nash, the no. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. 

Player Development:  In an even more curious move, Howson then promoted Director of Player Development Tyler Wright to Assistant GM and director of scouting.  While amateur scouting was considered to be an area of ineptitude, many considered that player development may have been the Blue Jackets greatest Achilles Heel as the Blue Jackets have never developed a legitimate NHL star in any of the early or late rounds of the draft, something the elite NHL organizations such as the Detroit Red Wings have made a common occurrence.

So while there was a great deal of initial success in Scott Howson’s reign as GM, there have been a series of blunders and risks that have not paid off.

In part two of this series, I will address the Blue Jackets player performance aspects – Coaching, Locker Room Culture/Leadership, Offense, Defense, Goaltending – that have led to this most disappointing start.

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