Why the Blue Jackets Must “Blow it Up”

The Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit at an abysmal 2-11-1, which not only represents the NHL’s fewest point total but also its worst record by far.  The Blue Jackets have been mercilessly pounded in their last two games, 4-1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs and 9-2 by the Philadelphia Flyers last night.

Calls to fire the Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Scott Howson and head coach Scott Arniel have been mounting, particularly because their payroll is the fifth-highest in the NHL, according to Capgeek.com.  But the calls to fire team President Mike Priest have been the most prevalent during the last several days, and with good reason.

It was Priest who hired Howson after a dizzying 2 ½ month GM search, hiring a former Asst. GM from one of the worst organizations in the NHL since the late 1980s, the Edmonton Oilers.  It has only been within the past two years that Edmonton has changed their organizational direction with promising early results, enabling them to escape two-plus decades of misery.

It has been Priest who has afforded Howson to not only increase the payroll to its current position, but who also allowed Howson to work with a competitive payroll in previous seasons; case in point, the Blue Jackets’ ranking of 19th in the NHL last season, which represented the third highest payroll in the Central Division and the middle of the pack in the NHL, overall.

So, for a team portrayed as a “budget team” the money ownership allotted to payroll is now known to be a misnomer.  And it’s now become evident throughout the NHL that the issues are now not only a case of efficiency, but effectiveness.

While all the signs point to a complete upheaval in the Blue Jackets organization, to include Priest, I offer you this:

I don’t see it happening, particularly not to the level that it should.

For any other organization, particularly an established NHL market/organization, firings would have occurred after a 5-7-2 start.  That’s about accountability, expectations and an organization culture that doesn’t tolerate ineptitude or sub-mediocrity.

However, after this embarrassing 2-11-1 start, the fans are given “votes of confidence” of the head coach and the GM, as well as countless team meetings – Kumbaya sessions – the results of which are short-team, at best, in nature.  The proper player-speak will be uttered, but in the end, at the first sign of adversity, the Blue Jackets will return to their listless, underachieving ways.

Particularly disturbing were the comments of team captain, Rick Nash, after another team meeting, this time with the owner of the Blue Jackets, John P. McConnell:

“The players here love what we’ve got.  Management, coaches…everyone’s very excited and very happy with what we have.  And we wouldn’t want to lose it.”

Now, there are those who say that Nash is a shy, unassuming person whose comments were meant to express his appreciation to the fans and to ownership.  But, for a team captain who will never be confused with Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby or former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, one can’t help but wonder if the comments were meant to acknowledge that the tolerance level of this organization is far higher than in any other NHL organization.

In short, it fuels the belief that this organization’s “country club” culture remains, without any repercussions.

So what should be done?

At this stage, after countless coaching changes, two GMs and countless organizational directions and approaches, they are left with one option:  Blow it up.

Where do they start?  It has to start at the top – with Mike Priest.  From a cost management perspective, Priest possesses an essential element of business savvy; however, as it relates to the capability of running an organization from a hockey standpoint, it just doesn’t exist.

As is often said, if you don’t possess the requisite knowledge to manage a particular aspect of an organization, you make sure you find someone who does.  And Priest’s primary gaffe was to entrust the entire on-ice operations to Scott Howson without having knowledge of what constitutes success (a metric) or without having the necessary oversight capability to provide input to Priest with the necessary knowledge to succeed or to make changes where warranted.

Major changes have to include Scott Howson and Scott Arniel.  It hasn’t worked, isn’t working and it won’t work.  There will be no “switch” that will be flipped, no spark that will be ignited.  It simply isn’t in the talent level or in the DNA of the team to get on any sustained winning streak.  The players are too mentally fragile and the talent level isn’t capable of making a 44-19-5 run necessary to make the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.  Fair or unfair, the responsibility of obtaining, developing and coaching the players rests with both of them.

Finally, major changes have to be made in the personnel and unlike what has occurred in the past and present, no one should be spared and no one should be considered untouchable.  That includes Rick Nash, long considered to be the one constant in the losing culture that permeates throughout this organization.  That includes Jeff Carter, Derick Brassard, Kristian Huselius (once he returns from Injured Reserve – IR), Kris Russell, Sammy Pahlsson and Steve Mason.

No matter what you get in return for any or all of them, obtain it, just so long as the return is just and the individuals entrusted with making the decisions have the competence to make them in the best, future interests of the organization.

Now it begs the question:  Will John P. McConnell make those tough decisions?  That’s the million dollar or in this case $64 million (the team’s current payroll) or $25 million (last season’s financial loss) dollar question.

It is said that John P. McConnell is much like his late father, team founder and original owner John. H McConnell – they’re both loyal to a fault.  But savvy businessmen like the McConnell’s are in fact, businessmen – John P. McConnell can no longer wait for the situation to turn around.  Financial losses continue to mount, there is still some uncertainty as to whether cooperative support for the arena lease will occur at the local (FranklinCounty) level and fan unrest is at its all-time highest, as if that were possible.

While I fear that little if anything will occur, the reality remains that sweeping changes are needed.  There is too much at stake. And it’s time for Mr. McConnell to make those necessary changes.

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