Thursday, January 26, 2012

What I would do: The management

Judging from the Puck Rakers post on the current state of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the unanimous (or nearly unanimous) positive response from even the most unlikely of corners, it appears that the proposition that I proposed yesterday - that the team's dismal 2011-12 campaign is not an aberration but rather symptomatic of much deeper problems within the club that will inhibit their ability to win  - is one that has some legs.

While I'm not one to bow to the will of the chorus reflexively, I'm inspired by what I've seen and figure it's time to lay all my cards out on the table.  I've been biting my electronic tongue for most of this season, and the Blue Jackets' .008 percent chance of making the playoffs tells me that it's time to open up.

Addressing the big question of how to attack these deep-rooted problems is a two-part issue in my head.  First, you have to tackle the management question.  Note that my earliest "This isn't working!" posts involved discussions of management and not personnel.  Point being, you need the right people to be stewards of the ship before you add the crew.

So let's talk management.
Back in early November, I suggested the following two possible courses of action when presented with this train wreck of a season:
  1. Clean house now - management at minimum, perhaps coaches too - and let the new leadership use the rest of the season to assess what needs to be done and - gulp - develop a new plan/philosophy with the power to make whatever changes need to be made to implement it.
  2. Free up current the management and coaching staff from the "win now" mantra, tell them to stop grab-bagging and give them the latitude to shuffle the roster and play the players that would facilitate a rebound in 2012-13 that resembles what we've seen thus far from the likes of the Edmonton Oilers or the Colorado Avalanche this season.
Ownership, by its inaction, went with option two.  Problem was, hockey operations management and coaching didn't follow through.



SCOTT HOWSON

Scott Howson traded for Nikitin, Letestu and, much more recently, Gillies.  By November, Scott Arniel was deep into a weak version of Hitch Hockey...so weak (or perhaps his "high flying" roster was fundamentally incapable of playing that scheme, I don't know and really don't care at this point) that it got him fired.

I think it's also safe to say that, injuries aside, playing looming unrestricted free agents is not the wisest way to build a cohesive roster for next season.  I have to believe that some, if not most, of those players will be plying their trades in other cities.

I've laid out my grievances with Scott Howson all over this blog.  To summarize the high points:
  • I cannot see how his roster acquisitions have advanced any discernible team identity.
  • I think he was useful on the personnel front in support of a strong-willed head coach (Hitchcock) and went terribly awry once he decided that his vision (whatever that might be) for the club was superior.
  • I think that since Jason Chimera got shipped off to Washington for Milan Jurcina and Ex-Captain Chris Clark, Howson has been grab-bagging.  
  • I think he gave way too much latitude to a head coach, Scott Arniel, who apparently was in over his head.  I know Arniel wasn't Howson's first choice, but he ended up being Howson's choice.  
  • I am amazed at how poorly Howson handled the goaltending position since coming to town.  There is no point in his tenure where I can point to the roster and say that the team had two goalies that inspired faith.  None.
  • I feel that he has signed middling talent to contracts that are too large (which is partially forgivable considering I understand that Columbus is not yet a preferred market for players) and way too long (unforgivable). I fear that the team will be crippled for years by these legacy contracts.
  • The team has gotten progressively worse since the 2009 playoff appearance, and on a fairly steep slope.
In fact, the only true positive I can see is the discipline he has exerted in keeping talented young players away from Columbus - be it in juniors or in the AHL.  (I still would have bumped Johansen back to juniors, however.)  Especially this season, there is nothing to be gained professionally for an emerging talent from hanging out in that locker room.

I'm sure I could add more, but I don't want to write a book.  Point is, Scott Howson has had plenty of chances and, once removed from a coach who could tell him where the sun really shined, has fallen flat.  He was an assistant general manager before coming to Columbus, and I honestly believe that type of position is where his talents are best suited.  He hasn't shown that he can steward a team for a length of time.

Therefore, I'm suggesting that Scott Howson be removed from the position of general manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets immediately.



MIKE PRIEST

I am much happier with the performance of Mike Priest as president of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  I do not look at Priest as a hockey man - he is not one - and thus I look at his function as straightening out the business operations side.  I'm also not an adherent to the philosophy that you have to be "a hockey guy" to run a hockey team.  You have to be a smart guy, do what you know well and get good people to do what you don't know.

On balance, I feel that Priest has done a pretty good job:
  • Through years of dogged determination (punctuated by occasional personal public appearances on the topic), he helped make the arena deal happen.  This is a HUGE success for the franchise.
  • He has ensured that ticket activity is high and rear ends are in seats in tough times, almost to the point of being counter-cyclical.  I know that many, many tickets are not selling for anything close to full price (and for the first time since I've been a fan, I've had multiple avenues this season to free tickets in both the upper and lower bowls from the team), but he's putting his product in front of people.  Think about it - despite being in the NHL cellar so long this season that the team has been to Home Depot a few times to make some improvements, the crowds still officially are in the 15-17,000 range.  Unbelievable.  From a purely business operations perspective, one can't ask for more.
  • He's lined up strong sponsor relations, especially with the likes of OhioHealth, AEP and Fox Sports Ohio (with whom he inked an extension of their broadcasting contract).
  • From public appearances, it seems like he's tried to milk whatever knowledge he could get out of the hockey operations staff that the team has - specifically, hanging out at practice with Ken Hitchcock.  If you're paying the man, you might as well pick his brain.
  • When it was clear that the team was going nowhere this season, it started shedding salaries.  Again, wise financial management to cut costs when it was evident that the revenues would not be coming in.
Honestly, the only thing I fault him for is letting Howson roam free with no knowledgable watchdog.  Let's be clear: That is a grievous error on Priest's part.  But then Craig Patrick arrived.  Whether Patrick really is that watchdog or not remains to be seen, but the piece is in place.  

So as long as Howson goes, I don't have an opinion on Priest's employment.  I only hope that Priest - or his successor - realizes the value of having a couple more strong, informed hockey operations voices in the room.



CRAIG PATRICK

From what I've read and understand about him, the presence of Craig Patrick makes Howson expendable right now.  Despite being officially away from hockey (read: not employed by a team) since 2006, Patrick understands enough about hockey and the people involved in the sport to serve as an interim general manager at the least.

And that's what I'll suggest.  Blue Jackets ownership should immediately elevate Patrick to interim general manager (or, if Mike Priest is removed, interim president) with the goal of:

  • Getting as great a return on pending unrestricted (and perhaps restricted) free agent assets as possible,
  • Preparing the team for the upcoming draft and free agency, and 
  • Assisting team ownership (and, if retained, the team president) in designing a functional strategic plan for a winning NHL franchise and hiring the appropriate people to put that plan into effect.  
On the last point, if that means that Patrick continues to keep a role (president, general manager, senior advisor, whatever), great.  If he wants a gold watch for his efforts, I'm fine with that, too.  Whatever it takes to get through this period.

My larger concern is not letting Howson, whom I feel should be removed immediately, manage the team's affairs in a way that jeopardizes its future any more than he has already done.

So that's my take on management.  I'll talk about the roster in the next post.

4 comments:

  1. My closest friends are Sabres and Penguins fans. Of the Penguins fans, they were quick to tell me that Craig Patrick would be a terrible solution for general manager. I find this a very curious reaction, but having looked into it more, Patrick really didn't do well operating under salary constraints, and at least partially helped to ruin the Penguins financially. While his tenure was marked with high points in the early 90s, he effectively put all the money and effort into those early years and made 2001-2006 absolute hell for the Pens. Perhaps things would have been different with better money management, but I can't help but be wary when my longtime Pen-fan friends warn me about Patrick.

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  2. Fair enough, zekebud. I appreciate the insight.

    If your assertion is correct, let him serve as interim and move him to another role once the season is done. Surely he can perform the limited role that I'm suggesting...nearly all of those functions don't involve salary cap management.

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  3. Just to clarify. Howson did not trade for Gillies, he claimed him on the waiver wire.

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