By Allan Muir
Scott Howson, the second general manager in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets, was fired Tuesday night.
Certainly no one can be surprised by this, not even Howson himself. The Jackets were miserable under him, his feckless five-year tenure marked by ineffective drafting, under-performing free agents and inept asset management. The team performed accordingly, making the playoffs once on the back of a superlative rookie season from Steve Mason in 2007-08, then descending into the role of punching bag...and punchline.
But the move begs two questions. Why now? And was it too late?
Tonight's decision, first reported by Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, comes four months after John Davidson joined the team as president of hockey operations. It surely didn't take 16 weeks and 13 games for an astute hockey mind like his to suss out what a disaster this operation was. So why the delay?
It's almost certainly too late for the incoming GM to adequately assess what sort of meat is left on these bones before this season's trade deadline. That's an unfair position to put him in.
More to the point, the ax fell after Howson was allowed to trade away the biggest asset the franchise ever had, former captain Rick Nash. The return, forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anismov, defender Tim Erixon and a first-round pick, did nothing to spare the team from an early spiral into irrelevance. They may become useful players as part of a larger overhaul, but “useful” is a pretty low bar for a deal of this magnitude.
And while it was generally regarded as the best he could hope for at that point, he was the one who let the relationship with Nash sour so completely that he had to trade him under those conditions. He never should have been allowed to make a trade that will haunt the franchise for the next decade.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. Portzline later reported that Howson's replacement could be named as soon as Wednesday. TSN's Bob McKenzie suggested on Twitter that Jarmo Kekalainen could be the choice. Kekalainen, who had a cup of coffee as a player with the Boston Bruins, was instrumental in the rebuild of the St. Louis Blues as the team's head scout. He currently serves as GM of Jokerit in Finland.
Hiring a European might sound like a bold move, but it's not in the least. Kekalainen is an astute mind and he and Davidson clearly share similar ideals from their time together in St. Louis.
Together, they've shown a knack for restocking a bare cupboard and turning a moribund franchise into something vital.
Of course, Davidson might go in a different direction. But whatever his decision, the Jackets will almost certainly be headed in a different direction. The right one.