Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What does Michael Chaput tell me about Scott Howson?

I don't place a lot of weight on the Blue Jackets prospect development system, and that's for a couple of reasons: 1) I only have so much time in the day and don't believe that I could analyze and provide coherent commentary at the level I expect of myself (If prospect coverage interests you, go check out Twitter's @cbjprospects.); 2) Considering the size of the 23-man (max) roster at the NHL level, there are way too many misses (as opposed to hits) to interest me.  Which speaks volumes to my lack of interest in the NHL draft, something I'll be discussing more on DBJ Plus in the not-too-distant future.

I'm interested in the wins and losses in Columbus, the Stanley Cup playoffs in Columbus...not so much the CHL major junior playoff fortunes of the, say, Shawinigan Cataractes.  Yet, strangely, I'm being drawn into the recent Memorial Cup championship of that very team to further discuss the Columbus Blue Jackets.

In the closing hours before the 2011 NHL trade deadline, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded forward Tom Sestito to the Philadelphia Flyers for forwards Michael Chaput and Greg Moore.  The following video is of Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson addressing the media at the conclusion of the trade deadline - and while the majority of the press conference revolved around the Rusty Klesla trade to Phoenix for Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto, he does touch on Moore...and especially Chaput...at roughly the 7:35 mark:

After admitting that the CBJ coveted yet missed out on the kid in the draft (picking Ryan Johansen, Dalton Smith and the now-released [!] Petr Straka ahead of him), Howson said, "Chaput was the key to the deal." He then thumbnailed Chaput's performance in Lewiston, Maine.  All in all, a pretty good overview of a young player who was still had a year left in the CHL.

(Digression: Unlike me, I think it wise that Howson be conversant in all aspects of the prospect development chain.  It's an important component of his job, especially when the NHL club isn't performing well.)

This doesn't come as a surprise to me, as Scott Howson has displayed a history of this behavior since taking over the team in 2007.  He identifies players that he likes and wants...and then waits until the time is right to strike and grab them.  And they're the oddest players, too: Anton Stralman, Fedor Tyutin and Antoine Vermette to name a few.  Guys who are flying under the radar of the general hockey consciousness.  These are players where Howson sees something that he just must have.

The performance of these oft-obscure players during or after their time in Columbus vindicates - in my mind - Howson as a talent evaluator.  Perhaps I should be more specific: History is vindicating Howson as an NHL garage sale genius.  It's a role that he comes by honestly, having served as an assistant general manager for the Edmonton Oilers before coming to Columbus.  Yet outside of Rick Nash - whom Howson has only had to convince to stay as opposed to recruit from outside - he hasn't truly hunted the white whales of NHL super-stardom (at least successfully...one never knows what he's up to behind the scenes), so we can't say that his talent evaluation chops are as strong with top level players.

By all accounts, the 20-year-old Chaput has had a very strong year in the QMJHL...three very strong seasons, in fact.  Since 2009-10, he's been hovering right around the point-per-game pace that Howson mentioned over a year ago.  He's done even better this season, going over a point a game.  In the Memorial Cup tournament, he was honored both as the tournament MVP and the tournament's top scorer.  Perhaps the most telling statement of Chaput's apparent rising value is the teeth-gnashing in Philadelphia Flyers fandom about the relative value of Chaput and Sestito.  Haven't seen that type of piece where another club's fans are writing in envy of Columbus, eh?

And now Howson has signed Chaput to a three-year, entry level contract.  Thus, for all my misgivings about Howson's stewardship of the Blue Jackets, I'll grant that the man has an eye for talent.

It's what happens to the talent once they arrive that scares me silly.  I see the likes of Stralman and Vermette impacting the Stanley Cup playoffs in New York and Phoenix, respectively, and wonder why they couldn't be as strong in Columbus.  I worry that young talent like Ryan Johansen is in a bad place, perhaps having been rushed onto the big squad because the silly NHL-CHL agreement wouldn't let him gestate in the AHL last season like he should have...something I've worried about since before he made the big roster.  I worry that the likes of Jeff Carter - who I'll take at his word when he said he tried to come into Columbus with an open mind - all but quit on the team.  At some point, one has to recognize that it's not just an overabundance of bad luck...that something fundamental needs to be addressed.

Which brings me back to Scott Howson.  After five years on the job, we're still asking: Can he shape (heck, can he determine) a team's identity?  Is he capable of molding a team's culture - and by that, I mean develop a culture that is driven to win and cannot accept losing - or is he just a skill/talent acquisition guru?  Can he insert roster chemistry into the equation when acquiring and retaining talent?  Can he hire a coach that can do something with the talent that he has been given?

Scott Howson is not perfect.  Heck, nobody is perfect.  But Howson isn't entirely terrible, either.  The man knows the sport of hockey, and he knows a young talent when he sees it.  The emergence of Michael Chaput in major juniors - and Howson's pursuit of him - tells us that much.

It's the rest that I'm still not sure about.


  1. I think it's interesting to try and draw a comparison between Howson and the on-ice identity of the Jackets.. He went after Vermette, who came in big, left absolutely mediocre, and suddenly was effective again elsewhere..

    Is that on the GM to get players to their potential once they've arrived? I certainly don't think so. Shoddy coaching.. shoddy leadership.. There are a lot of places I'd point to first before the GM.

    That said, I do appreciate this post a lot. Howson found what appears to be a gem in Chaput and he made a trade that was tough on him at the time. It's a calculated move that I hope fans can really appreciate if Chaput comes into Columbus and finds himself effective within the next couple years.

    1. Dark Blue JacketMay 29, 2012 at 12:14 PM

      When your title is "Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations and General Manager" and you've had five years on the job to lay your foundation only to still be plagued by shoddy coaching and shoddy leadership...all fingers point to you. And rightfully so.

  2. "Scott Howson is not perfect. Heck, nobody is perfect. But Howson isn't entirely terrible, either. The man knows the sport of hockey, and he knows a young talent when he sees it. The emergence of Michael Chaput in major juniors - and Howson's pursuit of him - tells us that much."

    I disagree with this statement wholeheartedly. The ability to find Chaput (and even moreso Atkinson) are outliers in a vast array of Howson's complete and awful incompetence. That means incompetence in drafting (only 4 or so players look to be a top-6 forward or top-4 d-man in their future), coach-hiring, contract-giving, and pro-talent evaluation. In fact, the only positive things are some of his trades, but they're so few and far between that they don't make up for his utter failures. But I've already addressed that before. I'm not entirely fond of the F.A.N.S. crowd, but they're right about Mr. Howson.

    1. Dark Blue JacketMay 29, 2012 at 12:17 PM

      Can't say as I disagree. I was just trying to find a silver lining - no matter how small - in this cloud.

      And let's be clear, the attribute "NHL garage sale expert" is nowhere near enough to justify holding a GM job. Maybe Assistant GM, or something dealing with player personnel.

  3. The greatest Garage Sale purchase Scott Howson ever made was signing free agent Jan Hejda to a 1-year, $1 million contract. He later re-signed him for 3 years, $6 million.

    Nobody but Howson knew he had the potential to be a top-4 shutdown defenseman.

    1. Dark Blue JacketMay 29, 2012 at 12:12 PM

      Excellent point, Chad. What a terrific combination of high talent and low cost.

  4. Whats interesting the most to me in this clip is that, once again, despite ownership telling us otherwise, Priest's name is prominent as being in the room when these deals are made....

  5. Last Summer I asked Dan Hinote, "Who impressed the coaching staff in during the prospect camp?"...He immediately said Chaput (and Mike Reilly).

  6. Identifying talent is the scout's job. Hard to say if Chaput was Howson's guy or coming highly recommended by scouting staff.

    The GMs job is to assemble a team, a job that Howson continues to fail. Slotting talent in positions that they are not cut out for is what has haunted the Jackets since day 1 and continues to this day. Funny how Vermette worked as top center with Doan.

    Vermette, Klesla, Stralman all have done well in roles that best suits their abilities vs the role the CBJ holes forced them to play.