|Here's what we were being sold at the beginning of the season.|
Didn't quite turn out that way, on a host of levels.
As depressing as this season was, and as bitter as I have been at what I saw, I still renewed my ticket package for next season. Why? Because, believe it or not, I'm an optimist at heart. I know that this team can be better next season, perhaps significantly so if a couple breaks come their way.
To get there, the team needs to complete the transition that started this season. The Hitchcock holdovers, the eleven players (as of January 26, when I wrote that post) who have seen four head coaches in just over two seasons, have been pared back to nine. I think that it's safe to presume that this group will shrink even further in the offseason. This is good. This team desperately needs to make a transition to get on the right track.
We're starting to see some of this transition happen despite the awkward extended goodbye to Rick Nash that he and the Blue Jackets forced on the world. As evidence:
- Craig Patrick apparently helped the Blue Jackets overcome the now-legendary reluctance of Scott Howson and navigate the trade deadline to pick up Jack Johnson while shedding a couple Hitchcock Holdovers.
- The coaching appeared capable under Todd Richards, who apparently remains a candidate to take the "permanent" head coaching title.
- Vinny Prospal and Jack Johnson emerged as vocal leaders, each in their own way.
- Cam Atkinson and Mark Letestu are adding much-needed scoring (as well as R. J. Umberger, although I would not be surprised to see him moved this offseason) - with help from defensemen Nikita Nikitin and Jack Johnson.
- The blue line actually is starting to shape up with the surprise emergence of Jack Johnson as a legitimate top pairing defender (quite a bit different than what I expected after seeing stuff like this).
- Goaltending, with long-overdue assistance from a bolstered blue line and an actual team defense philosophy, avoided being outright awful and actually helped win a few games as the team finished out the string. I note, however, that this apparently was too little, too late - it sounds like the goaltending corps is going to get a scrubbing this offseason.
And then there's the front office, where it appears that team president Mike Priest and general manager Scott Howson have received the ultimate mulligan from majority owner John McConnell: Over their four years, they took a poor team, turned it into a (barely) playoff-worthy team and then deliberately made the strategic decision to turn it into the team that it is today. It is the rare, rare situation in pro sports where a management team is permitted to continue after directing their team deep into their league's sub-basement. But here we are, and there they stay.
Jason Kay, editor of The Hockey News, made a statement since he published it in his April 16 edition: "Scott Howson was viewed as a shrewd, up-and-coming executive when Columbus hired him to build a solid foundation in 2007." Yet for every smart move like grabbing Mark Letestu for a fourth-rounder or trading to get Nikita Nikitin for Kris Russell, there's a way-too-premature Steve Mason contract. This is the man who drafted Cam Atkinson...and Nikita Filatov. On balance, I'd guess that this team currently has more talent than the one Howson inherited in 2007...but the toxic team culture and, at least in the case of Scott Arniel, coaching makes that opinion anything but firm. (Ah...coaching. Yeah, Howson and Priest picked Arniel over the likes of Paul MacLean and Kevin Dineen. Yup. Sigh.)
There will be time over the months ahead to talk about what needs to be done. This series has talked about what happened.
Let's hope that the future is brighter.