Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Closer

Unable to close the deal with his number one choice for CBJ head coach,
Scott Howson brought in his number two, Scott Arniel. 
Mrs. DBJ loves her TV series, that's for sure.  One of her favorites is a show called "The Closer".  The protagonist, played by Kyra Sedgewick (who offers a Georgia accent that is so perfect that you would swear she has peach juice in her veins), is the assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and inevitably makes the crescendo of every episode the point where she and the villain du jour square off in the police interrogation room.  Through shrewd use of evidence, verbal sparring and often pure conviction, she more often than not gets her man (or woman) behind bars by the end of the hour.  Of course, the joy is in the hunt and the banter that ensues while she circles the villain, waiting to pounce with the kill shot (metaphorically speaking, of course).

I've been thinking about that show through the frame of the Columbus Blue Jackets over the last couple of weeks.  Columbus runs a mighty lean hockey operations department and it's safe to say that if something gets done with the Blue Jackets on the coaching/scouting/personnel front, it's going to happen with Howson's blessing.

Beyond that, it's also important to recognize that the NHL is a microcosm of the market economy in which we live.  Coaches, executives and free agents all have varying levels of ability to get up and go wherever they want.  Thus, recruiting (something Columbus fans know all about through sharing the sports stage with the Ohio State University Buckeyes) becomes paramount.  It's nowhere near enough to draft well and hope that your team develops as a result.  You need to bring in top talent, be it behind the bench, on the ice or in the press boxes around the league (scouts).  Unless you're a storied franchise like Detroit, you can't assume that people will line up to play/work for you.  You have to recruit.  And recruiters have to close the deal.

This, of course, makes Scott Howson the number one closer for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So how has Howson done?  Sadly, his record is decidedly mixed.

Let's first give him all the credit in the world for retaining Rick Nash on the CBJ roster.  Legend has it that Howson put the hard sell on Nash, re-recruiting him to stick around Columbus with a vision that apparently had the new-ish CBJ captain assuming a Steve Yzerman (the player) role for the squad, surrounded by enough talent to become a quality playoff team.  Nash bit, Howson opened up the wallet, and it was done.  Howson closed the deal.

It gets rougher after that.  After firing head coach Ken Hitchcock, Howson interviewed a number of candidates.  The one that really impressed him was the head coach of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, Guy Boucher.  As I understand it, Howson had an offer out to Boucher, who vascilated long enough to get an offer from Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Boucher went to Tampa, and Howson went to his number two choice, Scott Arniel of the AHL Manitoba Moose.  Regardless of your opinion of Arniel (I think he's OK but have yet to see enough to believe that he's something special as a coach), one has to acknowledge that Howson could not close Boucher.  Instead, he let Boucher get away and had to quickly move to Plan B.  (And Boucher took a more talented Tampa team deep into the playoffs while the Blue Jackets were golfing.)

Fast forward to this offseason.  The promised housecleaning at CBJ Central is underway, with both wannabe-part timers Dave Rook (goalie coach) and Bob Boughner (offense/power play coach) walking out as well as the heads of both amateur and professional scouting getting shown the door.  R.J. Umberger is in his contract year.  Time to step up, so to speak....time to recruit.  And close.

Howson's first order of business was to bring in a new goalie coach.  He apparently extended an offer to Nashville goaltending coach Mitch Korn, the professional mentor for Pekka Rinne.  If you haven't paid attention to Nashville, you've missed that Rinne has quietly put together a very strong body of work.  Sadly, Korn chose to remain with Rinne instead of work on The Steve Mason Reclamation Project.  Howson had to move to yet another Plan B, bringing in Ian Clark - most recently the coach for Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks' goalies.  Again, Howson didn't get his man.  He didn't close.

So here we are, looking at another assistant coach, a new scouting management team and badly-needed free agents.  And Columbus has a closer whose ability to close...is questionable at best.  I'm not interested in excuses.  I know it's tough to recruit for this market (yet strangely, hockey people who experience Columbus often are genuinely upset to leave). I know that there are structural barriers like the theoretical team budget.  I know that hockey travel for Columbus stinks by virtue of our being the easternmost team in the Western Conference.  I know that the team's generally lousy performance over the past ten seasons doesn't put the Blue Jackets on many (any?) A-lists.  At the same time, I don't care.

This is a pivotal time for the Blue Jackets.  Everything is in flux.  The front office is getting a shakeup.  The coaching staff is getting a facelift.  The roster is in line for an overhaul.  Even the game operations staff has new leadership!  What's left, a new director of concessions?  New zamboni drivers?

My point is, this is a pivotal time and we need the best possible closer to lock down the deals and the top talent that bring the best possible people to Columbus.  I think Howson's instincts are right (Boucher?  Korn?  Yeah, I'd take them in a heartbeat!) but, when it comes down to it, I'm scared that he can't close the deals that need to be made.

The time is now, Mr. Howson.  Make the deals.  Reposition the team.  Build the winner that we all want.

Be our closer.

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