|Scott Howson, GM and Aaron Portzline of The Dispatch|
Secondly, I guess I'd like to point out that I'm a glass half full kinda guy. When someone makes the commitment to come do the hockey thing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, I am generally on their side and wish them success, be they a certain Hall of Fame coach, or an AHL coach. It's my team. I want them to win and be successful.
It may come as mild shock to the casual reader, but things haven't really gone too well for the CBJ in 2011-12. Thus, at the beginning of the New Year, it seems worthwhile to consider where we are, and where we might go with things in the upcoming year.
I guess lastly, I have the benefit of hindsight on a lot of this discussion. I have generally supported the moves our General Manager has made (with the exception of firing a certain Hall of Fame Coach) at the time the moves were made. The GM has the tough job, forecasting into the future to find the right combinations that will produce a winning franchise. I have the easy job, looking into the past to see why it didn't work. So my caveat is that I do not want to seem unduly critical, if there is such a thing for a last place team, but want to look at how the past might, and should, shape the future.
Back in late October, I made this post regarding the need for a semblance of stability in the franchise. In one of the comments, Pete G. made the following excellent observation:
I'm with you on the advantage of stability in a winning organization. Problem is in recognizing when the right people are in place and being sure the path chosen is the right one to follow for a significant length of time. Are Howson and Arniel on the right track? If we stick with them, will the team see success for years?
I have had the basics of this comment in the back of my mind for a couple of months now. And, in thinking all this over, I think it is fair to say that Howson and Arniel are not on the right track. The reason for that is a fundamental flaw in the logic that is being applied to the problem.
As I recall, the problem was summed up as this: The 2008-09 team had maxxed out in making it to the playoffs. Hitch had managed to wring 100% out of the players, and it was clear the team was at their ceiling. I believe both the coach and the GM were in agreement on this issue. Likely the approach to solving the problem was the first significant split between the two of them. Scott Howson looked at the post lock out landscape and determined that an upgraded offensive capability was what was necessary to go systematically deeper into the playoffs. In an expansion franchise with a dearth of talent in the system, much of this 'upgraded' offensive capability was to come from youth. Sadly, this did not turn out, as the expectations for youthful production were far too high (make sure you include me in that count).
Additionally, Howson determined that more offensive production from the defensive corps was necessary, and a number of moves were made sacrificing defensive capability for offensive production. In the year following the playoffs, an unfortunate series of events, such as the implosion of the shut down defensive pair, and the corrosive loss of 'character' players out of the locker room (Michael Peca, Manny Malhotra and Jason Chimera) lead Howson to fire his Hall of Fame Coach, Ken Hitchcock. I think this was a panic move, and a move signifying the division of philosophy between the Coach and the GM. Howson did not show the level of patience with Ken Hitchcock as he has shown with Scott Arniel, a coach who shares his offensive philosophy.
Essentially the adoption of that offensive philosophy is the beginning of the spiral that we find ourselves in today. At least, however, we will be in a position to draft a player to fill some of those offensive needs.
Here's my problem. The stated objective following the playoffs was to make the moves that would allow the franchise to routinely make it deep into the playoffs. And, in the GM's support, it seems clear that routine trips to the playoffs must be preceded by last place finishes in several years (See Penguins, Pittsburgh), so you could say this season is all part of that long term strategy. I guess I fell into the trap of not seeing that since he did not enunciate the really bad part of it. But in my mind, the real problem is that an offensive system and capability will get you to the playoffs, but not deep into the playoffs (see Capitals, Washington). Why is this? Because once you get to the playoffs, the refs swallow the whistle and the game is played in a pre-lockout fashion. You have to be bigger, stronger, and badder if you want to win. You have to play through the physical contact, and the hooking, holding, and obstruction penalties that are not going to get called. In other words, you need to play Hitch hockey once you get to the playoffs.
So if the stated objective is to go deep into the playoffs, but you don't want to play Hitch hockey, then you have a fundamental flaw in your logic. And that, I fear, is where our GM finds himself.
So what should we do from here? Between now and the trade deadline, the GM and his new advisor, Craig Patrick, should hammer out a strategy for the future. Patrick is an ideal resource for that. Once the new minority owner, Nationwide Insurance, is on board, you sell that direction to the owners. Then you move players at the deadline towards achieving that direction. People will make stupid moves at the deadline if they are looking at a playoff run.
Meanwhile, there is no real reason to fire Scott Arniel. He has his merits, along with his considerable baggage. You can usually get 30 to 40 minutes of highly entertaining hockey out of each game. Don't look for any winning, as we go down to the wire in a dogfight for that first draft pick. And hope like h**l we finally win a lottery.
There are fundamental flaws with the team as constructed today. Half of it is built to play Hitch hockey, the other half is built to play something else. Look at the under performing veterans, and you will see the ones that made the playoffs with Hitch. Are they the right people for this system? Since this system seems unlikely to take you deep into the playoffs, based on the last 10 or so years of playoff hockey, is this the right system to be using?
Determine your course, wait till the off season, and hire an NHL coach to with a similar philosophy to implement it. The AHL experiment got us AHL results. And, take a long, hard look at the Capitals. Cause if you can't play defense, you aren't going deep in the playoffs. Which is the stated objective.