A lot has been said since the comments arrived through the social media pipeline yesterday regarding Howson's continued support of Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel. In his mind, the players are not playing to their potential and the issues surrounding the teams success fall squarely on them to start playing better. A very interesting commentary to say the least, considering it was his guidance that put this group together and it has been one of his major criticisms that he sits on these types of things for way too long.
I have long been a Scott Howson supporter during decision making that really tested the patience of the Blue Jackets fan base. The trades that brought Vermette, Letestu, and Carter to the team. His decision to experiment with young goaltenders in hopes of keeping Mason competitive rather than flushing him through the minor system while he ages and matures. Certain re-signings that seemed to give the team more of a core feeling, and later noted non-trades that would have made him look decent to the fans, but caused the team to step back a bit in quality progression. With that said, he has been slipping in my books, with a few of the following being the front end of my concerns.
First, the re-signings. I look squarely on the Umberger and Tyutin re-signings as brash, as he had a full season in which to allow them to provide a quality look at their progression as players and give him further ammunition on what type of dollar amount to offer them. Admittedly they could both be having career years, forcing their potential free agent value higher and costing the team more, but the simple fact is, they are not. I can also understand those who would suggest I only have an issue with the signings because they are struggling, but again that is not the case, as I have been vocal on my dissatisfaction regarding both deals, in which I feel like the team paid a premium for (at least to the point where they did not re-sign for a 'discount').
My solution on the day of signing each player, was to extend the discussions through till Christmas. This allows the player to 'showcase' their abilities while still being early enough in the season for the team to not feel like they are scrambling to make a deal before free agency. In this case, both would have weaker legs to stand on, and I could see at least one signing for less money -- or on the other hand, both players could be playing above their potential right now, working to get a better deal from the club. Howson on the other hand seems to believe that contract talks get in the way of players work during the season, and likes to get things done before the season begins. While I can respect that logic, it has put Columbus in a bit of a bind if Tyutin and Umberger can't get back to previous season form. Tyutin is now playing second line minutes and RJ has been a shadow of his former self. While it was not expected that he would be a top line player, at 4.6 million on the cap, you would think he would factor in on a nightly basis in the top six.
Second to those concerns, were the concerns to bring in a question mark like James Wisniewski. With Columbus in great need of stable defensive help, he went out and acquired a free agent defenseman who, in all fairness, has the tools to be a tremendous defenseman. He is quick footed, with silk-like hands that effortlessly corral the puck, yet his decision making has become increasingly terrible as the year has progressed. It is interesting in that a number of teams he has played for previously have suggested he is slightly cancerous in the locker room, and many have been quick to move him to the next team. I also can't help but wonder if there is some sort of external factor that is causing him to be different. He was top tier for a solid number of games in his return after suspension, yet something caused him to lose his touch. Suddenly his passes were intercepted, and his pinches were terrible. Maybe Jeff Carter isn't the partier on this team. In any case, Wisniewski may have been Howson's least cautious move as GM of the Blue Jackets, and I would hardly suggest it is working at 5.5 million per season and second only to Eric Staal and Rick Nash at a league worst -17.
With those points made, I have to touch base on Scott Arniel and his ability to convince management that he is the appropriate coach for the job, even with his immediate jump to line juggling and inability to convince the players to play sixty minutes of hockey. While I can appreciate his success in the AHL, I am not under the impression that he can deploy a system that will work for the Blue Jackets or their current roster. Not unlike Hitchcock, the players have made it relatively clear that regardless of what he puts them through, they will make a muted effort during games, and one that never stretches throughout. Considering that, I would think Howson would be limited to two options (three if you have a sense of humour)..
1 - Trade away the core and build again
2 - Drop coach in favour of the 5+ veterans now looking for work
3 - Pull out all hairs, and move to somewhere warm
Clearly, he has done none of the above. With fan interest still showing relatively high (for some incredible reason, 16,ooo+ have shown up to the last handful of home games), no moves are being forced on him, and he's content to see it through. Maybe it's him being incredibly stubborn in that he built this specific team and plans to make it work. I really don't know. But if it were me, I'd do the following:
1 - Deal A top six player. Realistically it would be one of Vermette, Umberger, or Nash. Three players who have been with the team for a while and who seem fairly stable on the roster. This should provide an uneasy feeling in an otherwise country club style locker room, forcing players to essentially 'nut up and shut up' rather than coasting around with their 'frustrations' after another 35 minute effort.
2 - Fire Arniel. It's a simple enough solution, but with the sheer quality of top tier coaches sitting on the open market, the timing could not be better. It would allow the team to bring in a coach who knows the game better than the back of his hand, and one with decent tenure in the NHL that would hopefully force the players to respect him.
3 - Look for a deal involving Tyutin or Wisniewski. I know they both just got signed, but they cannot continue to work towards becoming a better team with 10 million of the future defensive cap in underachieving players. The team needs a quality 1-2 defenseman who can play a two way game, but focuses on the defensive aspects of the game. Their recent disasters have left massive holes in their own zone, and while Methot has attempted to fill in the number two role, he is far better suited on the second line, and has found success there.
4 - Pursue a deal that would find Mason a new home, but bring a similarly talented young goaltender to Columbus. While the team (and fan base) have seemed to give up on Mason for long stretches of time, he remains one of the best goaltending assets in the NHL, with being five years below the NHL average goalie age, and only really his confidence that seems to pull him back. While I would hate to see Columbus lose an asset like him, as I believe he has to tools to be a franchise goaltender, I can understand the need for change in all areas of this team. If they can acquire a player of similar potential, I think it's for the best.
5 - Convince the fan base that losing is not an option. While we as fans have endured ten years of 'the suck' I have confidence that the team is on the cusp of something great. With that said, the expectation of losing has not been higher with the current team in place, and I think it's important for the franchise to give the fans very obvious signs that players will not continue to be paid by this team if 'the suck' continues. That is not to suggest they would simply stop paying them, but rather find a deal that brings different players into the system in favour of them. While I don't care for a ton of player turnover, I find it increasingly concerning that the two basically non-rostered players who we have traded for are now essential to this team.
The trade freeze is now active until December 27th, so don't expect a trade any time soon. If I were Howson, I would certainly be hammering the phones if I wasn't firing my coach at 9-20-4 with a -31 goal differential trying to make a trade. In any case, I sure hope some resolution is found with this team sooner rather than later, although Nail is starting to look like a tremendous opportunity for a season lost in 'the suck' before the midway point. Here's to change, soon.
Carry the Flag!