Of interest to us as hockey fans is what this means for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team gains a significant new minority owner in Nationwide Insurance. They are kicking a significant chunk of money into the pot right off the bat. And, most importantly, the team is signing on the dotted line to stay in Columbus for 29 years, or until 2039. The Columbus Blue Jackets are now an institution in Columbus. While it is clearly the responsibility of the Hockey Organization to put a winning team on the ice, their presence is no longer tenuous.
With this change, the whole situation with regard to the team is stabilized for the long term. The franchise has been strengthened organizationally in a substantial fashion this year, even to the extent of being the prime beneficiary of a league re-alignment. All this allows for a change of approach for the hockey operations part of the organization.
Heretofore, hockey operations has been trying to amass talent against the wishes of 29 other teams using limited funding and time (pre-lockout) and with greater success and funding as time has gone on (post-lockout). There has always been a sense of 'win now, our survival is at stake'. This certainly was one of the things that fueled the desperate rush to the play-offs in 2008-09. That team was sufficiently talent limited that both the Coach and the GM agreed that the first round of the playoffs was the absolute top end for the group. And Hitch retains a stated fondness for that group, because he knew he got 100% of what they had to offer. A coach cannot ask for more.
And of course, 2011-12 has been pretty much of a disaster, unless you view it from the talent acquisition standpoint. I didn't see this coming in August.
So what should hockey operations do in the face of this disaster? Multiple firings are the answer that comes immediately to the vast majority of fans minds (mine too, at times). With that comes the sickening knowledge that firing people won't necessarily cure the problem.
My argument is that hockey operations now has a luxury it has never operated under in the past, time. The fundamental strengthening of the organization is such that there is no need to rush to judgement, which is a course Howson would always prefer. Indeed, hockey operations has strengthened itself with the signing of Craig Patrick, an individual ideally suited to help hockey operations select the correct course over the long term.
One of the fundamental structural problems at this point is the lack of a winning attitude on the ice, a product of the many seasons where losing due to lack of talent was foreordained, and one had to learn to accept it with humility. Rick Nash has certainly experienced this. The team needs to find a way to generate that gross, organic, innate confidence that 'we are gonna win dammit!'. In the past, every time they thought they were good, they got smacked down. That has left a lot of scars. The 2011-12 season has served as a complete tear down. They can only go up from here. But it is up to the players to find a way to do that. I think this is why Howson declines to fire the coach. Because this process must not be interrupted, no matter how painful it is. The players must find a way to know they will win. Naturally, it won't happen all the time, but the losses due to the chances the game inflicts on everyone will be regarded as that, instead of viewed as part of systematic flaws in the team. There is no reason to expect that this group of players cannot do this.
So it is important that we leave Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert down at the AHL. They need to grow that organic confidence down at the AHL, much as our NHL players need to grow it up here. That's the way successful franchises operate. And hockey operations now has the time, the personnel, and the organizational stability to grow these things the way they should be properly grown.
The organization now has the stability to withstand a down turn while the players are given a chance to grow themselves. But the bottom line is that, while frustrating, the games of late have been very, very entertaining. And that is what it is all about, on a cold winter night in Columbus.