Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Howson 4.0

or, "Why Steven Covey surely facepalms over the Columbus Blue Jackets"

Steven Covey
While the winds of change blow across Nationwide Boulevard, I've been silent on the blog.  It's not that I don't have anything to say...more a case of having too much to say and not being able to find words that accurately express my views.  I suppose this is what writer's block feels like.  Bear with me.

One thought with which I think I can develop a meaningful commentary is that of the meta picture that is the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Specifically, the ever-evolving notion of organizational identity for my favorite hockey club.

So why the Covey reference at the beginning of this post?  Simple.  Steven Covey, one of America's great business/life coaches and author of a worldwide bestselling book entitled "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", suggested - wait for it - seven habits upon which one could make their lives happier and thus more fulfilling.  The first of the seven habits is foundational:

"Begin with the end in mind."

"Begin with the end in mind."  What a simple concept.  Don't start something until you have a general notion of what you want to achieve.  Because without that endgame, you're just going through process with no guiding principle or strategy.  Yet, with that end firmly in the back of your mind, you can work toward a future that you want to see.

Now, I've worked in management with business, government and non-profits.  I've seen all sorts of operational models come and go.  Based on my experience, I have come to the conclusion that those ventures that actually follow this Covey principle have a greater likelihood of being successful.  It doesn't always happen - external influences change the landscape, systems break down and other impediments become insurmountable - but beginning with the end in mind works more often than not.

Now let's look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.  In a preemptive strike prior to the CBJ Fan Protest, John P. McConnell circulated a message to Columbus Blue Jackets ticket holders and fans.  In the letter, McConnell made one telling statement that suggested to me that he was trying to impose some sense of vision - an "end" goal - upon his toy hockey club:
"Our goal as an organization is to build a team that wins consistently and competes for the Stanley Cup."
OK, we're on to something.  Would I have liked to see him actually offer the words, "win the Stanley Cup"? Sure I would, and any fan of the team would surely agree with that.  Still, winning consistently and competing for the Stanley Cup is a darned sight better than what Columbus fans have seen since the team first dropped the puck.

But then what?  Such a broad ownership statement needs a similar vision to illustrate how the team is going to reach that goal.  And that's where the Blue Jackets have fallen flat on their face.  For if there has been a consistent vision, it has not manifested itself on the ice.  And, not surprisingly, I'm throwing blame for this lack of vision at the person who is responsible for assembling the roster to go out and make McConnell's words become reality.  Yup, general manager Scott Howson.

Howson has been on the job in Columbus since June 15, 2007.  Since then, I'll suggest that we are about to embark upon his fourth strategic iteration:

  • Howson 1.0: He was hired after John H. McConnell hired Ken Hitchcock to coach the team.  This edition was focused on providing roster support to deliver a team that would best implement the defense-first, veteran-friendly "Hitch Hockey" strategy that won Hitchcock a Stanley Cup in Dallas.  It yielded the franchise's only Stanley Cup playoff appearance yet left the perception that this version "maxxed out".  Despite being the only iteration that came close to meeting the vision statement put forth by McConnell, I'll suggest that this realization led to...
  • Howson 2.0: While I'm sure I could better fine-tune the exact moment that Howson went in a different direction, personnel-wise, than Hitchcock would have preferred, I use the drafting of Nikita Filatov as the moment this new edition emerged.  Filatov was an entirely wrong piece for Howson 1.0/Hitchcock - too young, too green, too unwilling to play defense and too headstrong considering his shortcomings - yet Howson forced Filatov on Hitchcock after only one season in the AHL.  Working from memory, I recall Howson referencing the need to build a team that was offense-heavy along the lines of the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.  This version reached its apex when Howson and Scott Arniel put Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Max Mayorov - small, young players who couldn't be expected to do anything other than score - on the 2011 opening day roster.  Hitchcock failed miserably in reconciling his vision with 2.0, Claude Noel appeared to do reasonably well considering the AHL-heavy roster he inherited and Scott Arniel started strong but failed dismally down the stretch and into the 2011-12 season, which led to...
  • Howson 3.0: As the season imploded early on and Howson (and perhaps Arniel) realized the terrific strategic error of Howson 2.0, we saw the rookies pushed back to the minor leagues and backfilled with "grit".  By that, players like Cody Bass and Dane Byers replaced the likes of Atkinson and Calvert.  The offense-happy scheme was dialed back to protect the goaltender a little more (and by that, I mean that players were permitted to play a little team defense every now and then).  Some observers referenced 3.0 as "Hitch Lite" - largely because the team was trying to play a variation on the 1.0 system with 2.0 players.  I think it's safe to say the jury will never get the chance to decide if Howson 3.0 actually worked because of the morass of team injuries, coaching turnover and...
  • Howson 4.0: The walls officially crashed down on 3.0 over the 2012 All-Star week, where McConnell had to issue a letter that all but waved a white flag on the season and 300-ish Blue Jackets fans held their own intervention with the team at the doors of Nationwide Arena.  Or perhaps I might suggest that the real root of 4.0 was the mid-January 2012 owners meeting, which resulted in the aforementioned letter and protest over the reaffirmation of Howson and president Mike Priest's job security.  We're now at a point where everything about the hockey operations program is up in the air (with the exception, strangely, of Howson) and once-untouchable players like Rick Nash are being dangled around the league as trade bait.  Terms like "nuclear option" are being applied to the roster, suggesting that there will be a huge overhaul in personnel before the 2012-13 Blue Jackets take the ice.  But what is the operational model of Howson 4.0 - what vision will help achieve the end that McConnell called for?  I have no idea...and worry that he doesn't, either.  
For as I sat there and listened to his answer to my "What's the team's identity?" question back in December, I grew more and more concerned that the man might not have a core vision that he's trying to achieve.  There was no "elevator speech".  Instead, there was a somewhat unfocused discussion of being "smart," "talented," and "big."  I sensed no larger vision.  I don't know what he's trying to do.  Now, it's possible that he's hiding his cards...but his personnel actions both on the roster and behind the bench do not inspire confidence.  And I'm not sure what is gained by not telling your ticket holders, in a general sense, what type of team you're trying to construct.

Simply put, I can't come to any conclusion other than Howson is grab-bagging at this point with his roster.  I can't see how what the man is doing will reach the end that McConnell succinctly put forth in his letter.  Which brings me to the trade deadline.

The potential that Howson could be grab-bagging with a once-in-a-career trade opportunity like Nash scares this Blue Jackets fan to no end.  A Nash trade should cement the team's commitment to a vision, not plug holes or just get good players. If you're going to blow the team up and scatter all the old talent (some of which is quite good) to the winds, you need to replace them with people who can function as integral parts of a cohesive whole.  This is a golden opportunity to his the reset button and finally begin with the end in mind.

Scott Howson is coming up on his fifth anniversary with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  He's on the cusp of offering up his fourth strategic iteration with perhaps his fifth head coach.  That's just under one operating vision per year - and one coach per year.  Amazing.  Is it any wonder that the CBJ have looked progressively worse since the playoff appearance?

McConnell needs to say, "Enough."  Perhaps a refresher of his copy of Covey's book might give him the gumption to do so.

For a much more insightful and informed view of CBJ history, I strongly suggest that readers take a while to read Gallos' masterwork "Definitive History of the Columbus Blue Jackets".  Or sit around and pop Maalox while we wait for the trade deadline.  I personally think the former to be a better use of time than the latter. 


  1. Very good piece. I've been with this team from the beginning and have never been so lost as I am today. If Howson is the one who trades Nash, I'm finished with this organization.

    1. I would be very interested in what "vision" GMSH sold Rick Nash that influenced him to sign a long-term contract at favorable discount. Was it anything other than "we want to become a winner."?

  2. This was an excellent piece. I think it's also noteworthy that while Scott Howson has gone through these iterations, he has also tried to lock down certain players to long deals somewhere between V2 and V3 (Nash, Umberger, Tyutin, and Wisniewski come to mind first). Certainly all of these players are reasonable, serviceable pieces, but their deals make reconstruction very difficult. Howson's sudden shift toward the "nuclear" path (signaled by making Nash available) is met with the problem of combating his previous work.

    As a fan, it's rough to read about the very real option of Nash moving. He is, after all, the greatest Blue Jacket. And despite all his shortcomings, he's the face of the franchise. Howson had better be extremely careful in trade negotiations. If this doesn't work out the right way, there's more in play here than just losing out on the franchise future - it risks alienating quite a few members an intelligent fanbase that understand what is at stake in moving such an integral part of the team.

  3. During Howson 1.0 the players quit,on the organization, Foote, Zherdev.
    During Howson 2.0 the players quit on Hitch
    During Howson 3.0 team had the best start in franchise history, and they forgot how to compete
    During Howson 4.0 players sat on their contracts (Nash, RJ, Mason)

    I didn't hear any fans, or bloggers be critical of Howson until the past couple months. They all cheered when Zherdev, And Foote left. The cheered when Filitov was drafted, and again when eventually traded. They all cheered when Mason won the Calder, and then signed to a contract. The fans cheered for the Carter trade, and Wiz signing. In fact the least talked about acquisition this past Summer, was Vinny, and he turned out to be the most important. Fans need to realize they don't know what they are talking about.

    1. Just because fans may agree with a GM's decisions at the time does not mean that the GM is not accountable if those decisions don't work out in the end. Scott Howson ought to be judged by the team's performance, and the team's performance indicates that his personnel decisions and lack of vision have harmed the franchise.

  4. Great work here DBJ. Two things I guess I want to mention. First, in terms of team identity, I would say that this is Rick Nash's team, a conclusion I came to after I heard Craig Patrick discuss 'Phil Esposito's Team'. When Nash assumed the Captaincy that is what it became, for good or for ill, especially after Hitch was fired.

    Secondly, Howson 4.0 has something that the other versions never had, which is the influence of Craig Patrick. One can only hope that instead of Howson 4.0 we are really seeing Hatrick 1.0.

    Bonus thought. Patrick values 'character' highly. Perhaps they are sending a message to the players that character counts, and to Nash in particular, that in spite of the fact that he is loyal, the face of the franchise, and loves it here, that character counts on the ice before anything else. And if that won't work, we CAN trade you out of here. Don't be too complacent with that contract. And no one is immune from it.

  5. Howson flipped Adamn Foote for a pick that got us RJ Umberger. Howson flipped Pascal Leclaire for Antoine Vermette - both great moves, that landed us solid players, who he rewarded with new contracts. Then, upon receiving those contracts, those players fell off a cliff. I don't blame Howson for that.

    He dealt Zherdev for Tyutin, then rewarded Tyutin with a new contract and he too as been awful since signing it.

    He didn't reach on the Filatov pick - Filatov was a consensus top prospect in the world. Shame that he didn't work out, but this isn't Maclean with first round bust and first round bust. Howson also drafted Atkinson and Calvert late in that same draft, who look to be steals where we got them and could be impact players next year.

    Currently, we have a #1 defenseman developing right in front of our eyes in John Moore and a top line forward developing Ryan Johansen. Both Howson first rounders that look to be hits. They are currently TEENAGERS. Give them another year or two and Howson may be getting a ton of praise for these guys.

    To surround Nash with other talent in their prime, he moved for a 30-40 point goal scorer and the best offensive defenseman on the market. Obviously, injuries and suspensions and Carter's attitude sabotaged those moves and they haven't worked out. Howson does bear the responsibility of that, but they were still the right moves. Can't say we'd have won more games if Voracek was here instead of Carter.

    Biggest complaint about Howson was not signing a better goalie then Mason, but it turns out he did sign one in Sanford. If only Sanford had been healthy to start the year.

    This Nash trade - This is not Howson's idea. This is clearly coming from ownership and Craig Patrick. They have $100 million invested in two players longer term (Nash and Carter) and don't want to pay it after this disaster of a season, and really, who can blame them. Young talent and rebuild also means a lot of entry level contracts.

    Howson hired a horrible coach, and not all of his moves have panned out. But I still like and respect him as a GM. He's an easy target, but when he took over, there were literally NO good prospects in the system and almost no good young talent on the roster. It can take 3 or more years for a draft pick just to make in the NHL and even more before they hit their potential.

  6. Excellent piece. I particularly agree with the first of 7 habits. BUT I do feel that it must be recognized that the so called team identity [style] is not a constant vision. The play of players may not be quite as expected and the availability to obtain players that exactly fit an image is not always going to happen. What happens when a young goalie comes on the scene and surprises everyone with his performance, you zig from a plan due to the performance/timing etc.
    If a player has a hot year, you must alter style and perhaps call ups and fine tweeks to maximize the team on the ice for that year. BUT BUT you then must go back to your original plan, perhaps with a slightly different zag but again towards the plan.
    To me, the most sensible model of team building is Nashville. #1 goalies, #2 defense, #3 scoring. I suspect $ have been somewhat of an obstacle in their plan, but it is a sensible plan

  7. So, uhh, are we gonna get around to "highly effective people" habits 2-7? Just curious how the rest applies.


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