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