Blue Jackets adrift in NHL's backwater
By Stu Hackel
It seemed as if the electrician arrived shortly after the Blue Jackets' lost 7-4 to the no longer mighty Ducks on Sunday to fix the lightbulb over GM Scott Howson's head. When it went on at last, a bright idea arrived: It was time to fire the coach of the NHL's 30th-best team.
The truth is, the Jackets aren't exactly swimming in money and they didn't relish the thought of having to pay yet another coach not to coach. Further to Howson's credit, he was loyal to Scott Arniel, his hand-picked selection, for longer than anybody expected. Arniel might well have what it takes to be a good bench boss -- the players never quit on him -- but Scotty Bowman couldn't turn this impoverished group into winners. That task now falls to Arniel's former assistant, Todd Richards, who had been head coach of the Minnesota Wild for the last couple of years while not getting them to the playoffs either time.
The Blue Jackets' awful 0-7-1 start rendered this season dead on arrival, but it was excused by the absence of Howson's two big offseason pickups, forward Jeff Carter (injury) and defenseman James Wisniewski (suspension). Would they really have made a difference? Carter was miserable the moment the Flyers traded him to Columbus (and he had to fend off rumors early in the season that he had demanded a trade out of there). Wiz is being paid like an elite world-class defenseman ($33 million over six years), and was hyped as such. But good shooter and solid performer that he is, he's not on a par with Shea Weber, Nick Lidstrom or Duncan Keith.
This is just not a good team. The Jackets have Rick Nash, who has lacked complementary talent since Columbus drafted him first overall almost a decade ago. Carter was the latest attempt to fit someone beside him on the top line. Carter has been in and out of the lineup, and has produced only 10 goals and seven assists -- seven assists while playing alongside Rick Nash. Those who wondered if Carter's talents as a puck distributor were overstated may be right.
The rest of the forwards -- those not on injured reserve -- are a collection of youngsters who have not yet developed into what the organization thought they'd be, and they may never, struggling along with veterans who are on the downsides of their career arcs and playing like it --- with the exception of Vinny Prospal, who remains defiant at 36 years old.
Then there's the Blue Jackets blueline. NBC and SI's Pierre McGuire, speaking over Team 1200's Three Guys on the Radio program from Ottawa Tuesday morning (audio), challenged the three amigos to name the current defense corps in Columbus. Wisniewski is injured, so he didn't count. The only name they could come up with was Fedor Tyutin, and how many of us would have even remembered him?
The goaltending this season hasn't been able to compensate. Steve Mason, who a few years ago was hailed as the next great young NHL goalie, struggles most nights. Backup Curtis Sanford has been the better of the two, but Arniel largely played Mason in hope that he'd recapture his magic of 2008-09. It hasn't happened.
As Columbus' record sagged to 2-11-1 in early November, and the hockey world continued to wonder why Howson stood by his man behind the bench, the Blues -- not as bad off, with a 6-7 mark -- decided it was time for a change. They hired Ken Hitchcock, the coach Howson had dismissed in Feb. 2010, but was still on the Jackets' payroll. Some had surmised that Howson might ask Hitch to return to his old job, taking over for Arniel, but now that chance was gone. The Jackets organization still breathed a bit easier -- they got Hitchcock's $1.3 million salary off their books.
All Hitchcock has done is turn St. Louis around: The Blues have gone 18-5-5 since he took over from Davis Payne on Nov 6.
Even after Wiz and Carter returned, the Jackets limped -- maybe "crawled" is a better word -- along. They've only won two consecutive games once, and that was in mid-November. Any chance the season could have been rescued by a coaching shakeup, a new voice, a new message, vanished long ago.
"They are regressing, Michael Arace observed in The Columbus Dispatch last Friday. "They had one regulation victory over the final 22 games last season. They had six regulation victories in 38 games this season, before last night. They have blown eight third-period leads this season. The 29 other teams in the league have combined to blow 18 third-period leads."
And Arace observed that the other franchises that were struggling when Howson hired Arniel -- Ottawa, Florida, Atlanta/Winnipeg and Tampa Bay -- have all passed the Blue Jackets in their rebuilding efforts.
Now, both Wisniewski (broken ankle) and Carter (separated shoulder) are out again. No, this team can't catch a break, but its biggest problems are inescapable. The Jackets are not especially talented, and some of that rests with Howson. But to be fair, he inherited a colossal mess when he took over from Doug MacLean in 2007.
MacLean's clubs never made the playoffs, never even played .500 hockey. The team's history of high draft picks that didn't pan out gives some clue as to where this all started. Only Nash has become a star NHLer for the Blue Jackets. The rest of their picks in the draft's top 100 choices during MacLean's tenure includes:
Rusty Klesla (a good, not great pick at fourth overall and now in Phoenix), Ben Knopp, Pascal Leclaire (who had his moments in goal, but not enough of them, before being traded), Joakim Lindstrom, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, the maddening Nik Zherdev, local hero Dan Fritsche, Alexandre Picard (not the guy drafted by the Flyers; this one went eighth overall in '04 and never stuck in the NHL), Adam Pineault, Kyle Wharton, Don LaCosta, Andrey Plekhanov, Gilbert Brule (sixth overall, perpetually ineffective or injured), Adam McQuaid (now a Stanley Cup champion in Boston, he never played for Columbus and was traded by MacLean for a fifth-round pick that later went to Dallas, which used it to take Jamie Benn, currently the Stars' top scorer), Kris Russell (now with Hitchcock, and injured, in St. Louis), the inconsistent Derick Brassard, Steve Mason and departed minor league tough guy Tom Sestito.
Perhaps some of these guys -- like Klesla, Zherdev and Brule -- might made more of an impact had they been given time to develop as minor pros rather than being rushed as teenagers to play for a bad team.
It's an abysmal record and that's what Howson inherited. His resume includes being in charge for the Jackets' lone glorious playoff moment in 2009; but his drafting record includes Nikita Filatov, sixth overall in '08, who has never been able to figure out what to do with his great talent or his career. Sadly, another wasted high choice.
When an organization stumbles so badly for so long, digging out is a massive undertaking, requiring years of work and probably someone with even more experience than Howson has, and had as assistant GM in Edmonton. The Jackets hired Craig Patrick, who ran both the '80s Rangers and the early '90s Cup-winning Penguins to take Hitchcock's place on the staff as a senior advisor. Perhaps his years of experience could do the trick, although being a GM is increasingly a young man's job. For now, it's Howson's mess. And it is a mess.
Late last week, Arace wrote in The Columbus Dispatch, "Growing in popularity is the notion that the organization must be gutted and refilled with fresh organs: Get rid of president Mike Priest and general manager Scott Howson, trade Rick Nash for a passel of players, prospects and picks, dump contracts, find a goaltender and maybe hit the draft lottery — that would be a start.
"The nuclear option feels more viable with each passing day.
"Those of a more conservative bent suggest that ownership need not be so rash. I tend to fall into the minority that figures the team can be placed on a different tack without singeing every eyebrow in the Arena District. Trade Nash? The Jackets will not win that trade."
Well, it depends who is making the trade and what they can get in return. Could Howson make a deal that would restock the club? If Patrick or someone else was calling the shots, could they?
The fans, who are not filling the Nationwide Arena, may need to see a whole new approach and cast of characters before they regain some confidence in the franchise. Most of all, they're going to have to see some victories. Unfortunately, it's doubtful that merely replacing a coach will get the Blue Jackets sailing forward in Columbus.
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