Sunday, June 19, 2011

Howson 2.0

The Dispatch posted an article, "Reshaping the Jackets," that certainly is worth a read.  It doesn't offer anything new or different to those who are in the Columbus Blue Jackets blog/Twitter world, but it does a nice job summarizing the current state of affairs going into Friday's NHL Entry Draft.  I'd classify it in the "must read" category, especially considering the slow hockey news world post-Stanley Cup Finals.

It also lays out an interesting perspective not on the roster per se, but rather on CBJ General Manager Scott Howson.  In essence, the article suggests that Howson, in the third year of his 2008 teardown/rebuild of the CBJ - you know, the one that contributed toward propelling the Blue Jackets into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the only time in the team's existence - has been forced to put aside his post-2008 patience and return to the riverboat gambler mode of that offseason.  Interestingly, the gist of the article was confirmed this morning on WTVN's "Sunday Sportstalk" when Howson himself confirmed to Dave Maetzold with regards to trades leading up to the Draft,

"We'll talk about anybody but Rick Nash"

As it should be.

Actually, I'd consider trading Nash, too, but Nash's No Movement Clause (through 2014-15) and No Trade Clause (for 2015-16 through 2017-18) make it probably more a headache than it's worth...but if a team came knocking with a Herschel Walker trade, I STRONGLY hope Howson would at least listen.  But I digress.

The three-year cycle.  Or is it four?

It's a somewhat-understood rule of thumb in big-time professional sports that a General Manager should be able to retool a franchise within three years.  Some might say four years is more appropriate, but the "five-year plan" is a derided phrase that reconjures up my Soviet-era politics course from twenty-years ago (and we know how THAT story ended...).  Point is, three, maybe four, years is enough time to reposition a team to make their run.

We're entering Howson's fifth year.  I appreciate that Howson's hands were tied for most of his first season by departed team president Doug MacLean's contracts.  He then made his big moves with Mike Commodore - who, regardless of whose side you take in the Commodore/Arniel-CBJ conflict of 2010-2011, is functionally a very expensive bust in Columbus and Kristian Huselius, whose large contract isn't reflected in his on-ice numbers.  Sure, there were trades and other moves, but those were the big ones.  To date, it's arguable that Howson even batted .500 on those two...and that's with a Commodore buyout looming and Juice entering the last year of his contract.

Long story short, the three-year program yielded one playoff appearance and no wins.

So what now?  The local fanbase is well past the "We Have A New Big League Franchise!" honeymoon stage, and season ticket sales are apparently down to roughly 8,000 core fans (and that's not nearly enough upon which one can base a successful franchise, if  you use Winnipeg's situation as a comparable).  Howson didn't have a great hand to play coming into the job - the roster was mighty thin, talent-wise - but it can be argued that it needs a lot more f***ing talent to become playoff competitive.

Back to the drawing board

The scouting staff is getting a scrubbing, paying for perhaps not very good at their work but most definitely for the drafting and free agency sins of Mr. MacLean.  And, as the above quote indicates, Nationwide Arena has garage sale rolling as I type, with Howson hoping that someone, anyone, will recognize that there is SOME talent on this team to be had in a trade.

(Another digression - I honestly believe that there is talent on the CBJ roster.  It's more a matter of Hitchcockian square pegs being smashed into Arniel's round holes - just a mismatch of talent and system that brought the entire team down.  Plus, I don't think that major market players are as fantastic as we're led to believe.  Look at "All-World" blue liner Tomas Kaberle.  Did he even sniff the top pairing in Boston after arriving from Toronto?  Nope, just a lot of smoke being blown by Toronto media.)

Trading, along with free agency, requires a closer.  Howson desperately needs to close a couple deals without giving away the store to get things going in the right direction with both the roster and the fanbase.

Looking longer-term

I don't know Scott Howson personally, but what I've seen of his work since coming to Columbus makes me think that he's a fairly good judge of talent with the (oft-underutilized) capacity to make the deal that won't cripple his own team.  Some call him too reluctant, some suggest that he has too much patience with his picks.  I'll throw in that I think he defaults to one-way contracts with two-way quality players too much, but that might be a reflection on his relative bargaining power.

I've also heard that he is known to "stalk" prospective roster players for months or years before making the deal.  Anton Stralman and Antoine Vermette come to mind.  I also gather that Howson's made at least one run at Dallas' Brad Richards in days past.  Howson doesn't just take the latest name to come in the door...he does his due diligence before pulling the trigger.  And his instincts are generally pretty good.  Let's hope that his selection of head coach (in 2nd-year bench boss Scott Arniel) and eventual choices for scouting heads live up to his instincts for players.

Beyond that, Howson deserves credit for improvements in the minor league talent pool.  He hasn't hit 'em all - nor has his choices for coaching served that emerging talent as much as possible (Not having a single defensive-oriented coach on a team that was overflowing with promising blue line prospects is unforgivable.), but it's safe to say that the system is getting stronger.  Which would be terrific if there were actually roster slots not taken up by one-way contract-holding players, but that's another matter for another day.

Babies and bath water

By most accounts, Howson is on the hot seat.  He's purged most everything in the CBJ hockey operations system and installed his own people, so his is one of the last heads to roll.  I don't think that anything meaningful can be gained from firing Howson at this point, however, despite the pretty clear level of failure achieved by the franchise under his tenure.  Had he not taken this new posture at this point, that's another story.  But he did his 180 degree shift, recognized that the three-year "rebuilding" window was over and is demonstrating that he is willing to retool the team once again to find that delicate mix of coaching and roster chemistry.  Even the most successful GM's only rarely can put together a string of successes over three straight years, and they didn't have the foundational negatives (largely a lack of talent at the NHL and AHL levels) that Howson inherited and is working through.  So let's give him credit for tacitly admitting that things aren't working and pray that he can close enough deals to make the 2011-2012 season more rewarding than the past couple of years.

So we're off to Howson 2.0.  Can't wait to see what this new roster looks like!

1 comment:

  1. It is weird because man for man I can't think of too many guys on this squad that I'm in love with (Nash-to some extent--Umberger, Vermette are decent grinder types) Mason is crazy frustrating yet they were still in the hunt for the 8 spot til near the end. It frustrating because it feels very "so close yet so far away". The West is rugged and they hung in there but I could still live without almost every player on the team.

    I guess your top line type players make all the difference. If you have superior top end talent it makes Vermette or Umberger as 2nd-3rd liners feel pretty good, but when you need those guys to crank it up and be near the team lead in offensive categories---yikes.

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