|"The expectations have been too low around here, and that goes not only for the players and coaches, but for management and everybody else."|
OUR STORY THUS FAR
It's been the Columbus Blue Jackets' offseason for nearly a month now, and NHL hockey is still being played in some parts of the United States. We've had the chance to see fourteen teams qualify for the playoffs and get eliminated over the course of the past three rounds. All that's left is the New Jersey Devils and the Los Angeles Kings, with the Kings taking the first game in the Stanley Cup Finals.
And what's transpired around Nationwide Boulevard?
- Todd Richards, the coach who cleaned up the not inconsiderable mess left by Scott Arniel, was retained. This was done without the team conducting any formal interview process of alternate candidates.
- Derek Dorsett, the fan favorite third/fourth liner with a heart of gold and a mouth that would make only his grandmother proud, was re-signed to a three-year contract extension.
- Ryan Russell, the midseason pickup who split time between Springfield and Columbus after being plucked out of the Montreal farm system, got a one-year, two-way contract.
- Derek Mackenzie, the long-time AHL/NHL tweener, finally saw his wish of a one-way contract come true.
- We're also hearing that Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson is planning to negotiate new contracts with restricted free agents Nikita Nikitin and Jared Boll. Perhaps unrestricted free agent Curtis Sanford, too.
- Howson wanted to sign Richards for one year, but Richards wanted at least two. Two it is.
- Dorsett, coming off a very positive contract year, got a raise that works out to roughly a million dollars a year over his prior deal.
- Russell got a $175,000 raise.
- MacKenzie got a $400,000 annual raise.
I don't think I've ever seen an organization that rewarded failure so generously. I know that I've never been a part of one.
It's not difficult to justify any of the individual moves. Richards apparently was the best option Howson had by a country mile (or at least I hope so, seeing the team skipped talking seriously to anyone else). Dorsett, as mentioned above, had a great (at least for him) season and appears to have entered the team's leadership hierarchy. Mackenzie plays hard and is somewhat versatile. Russell was another two-way deal, no biggie. I used the combined numbers for a reason, however.
Look at the pattern that forms when the deals are taken together. Consider Howson's comments to the Dispatch - the ones I put in the box at the top of this post - of over a month ago. Try to reconcile how the moves Howson has made since making that statement should raise fan expectations. I've tried, and I can't.
ABOUT THE MONEY
I appreciate that it's "only" $1.55 million in new salary money against a projected $70.3 million salary cap (up from $64.3 million in 2011-12)...but, as TSN's Bob McKenzie reminds us, that cap number presumes that the NHL-NHLPA collective bargaining agreement (the CBA) will continue into next season. It won't.
The general speculation is that the NHL will try to roll back its revenue split with the players to a 50-50 split. Currently, it's 57 percent to the players and 43 percent to the owners. (This New York Times article offers a good overview of the CBA landscape, including the recent player revenue split rollbacks in the other sports leagues.) If $70.3 represents a salary cap under a 57 percent player split, that means that a 50-50 split would result in a $61.7 million cap.
[This once would not have meant anything, as the Blue Jackets were a "budget team" that didn't spend to the salary cap, but John P. McConnell opened the wallet wide for the first time in franchise history last offseason and let Howson spend all the way to the salary cap. McConnell may close up the wallet this season, having seen that his investment yielded...well, nothing. Somehow, though, I don't see it happening that way. McConnell has the reputation of being a competitive man, and he is relieved of the financial burden of Nationwide Arena. He also has given his man on Nationwide Boulevard, team president Mike Priest, and Howson perhaps the ultimate mulligan in professional sports, another season to get it right after the 2011-12 disaster that capped off a tailspin since the 2009 playoff appearance. Why would he handicap them in the face of disbelief from the hockey intelligentsia?]
It's entirely possible (likely?) that Howson knows more about the upcoming CBA than me. I'm only going on what I read - and the people whose work I'm reading (like the Times) generally aren't in the business of wild, idle guessing. Yet if this speculation is correct, Howson added $1.55 million in salaries for bottom six forwards in an environment where the salary cap could be dropping by $2.63 million. I don't get it.
TALENT, TALENT, TALENT
I realize that what we've seen thus far is the opening gambit in
Rick Nash will be shopped. Kristian Huselius will likely be let go. Together, that's $12.55 million in salary cap room to be reallocated. Throw in a second overall draft pick and a very late first round pick from the Kings (which may or may not be used) and a handful of roster players whose contracts give them no say in their future, and Howson has a ton of flexibility if he can bring himself to throw caution to the wind to make the deals that need to be made to right the ship.
This is a team that needs many more skilled players in order to win consistently and compete for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They're on the verge of jettisoning the last of their veteran scorers. This, on a team that was 26th in the league in goals scored. (And they were 28th in the league in goals against, so we ought not forget the blue line and the all-important goalie position.) It's going to take every available dollar to acquire game-changing talent.
The free agents will be out there to be signed. They won't come cheap - free agents never do - and hockey legend dictates that Howson will have to overpay to get talented players to come to Columbus. Trades for talented players will sop up salary money like sponges, too - albeit not like most free agents. If that's the case, then, why would Howson draw down his salary cap flexibility on third and fourth line forwards?
We fans hear words like urgency and expectations, yet we're seeing moves that speak otherwise. Hopefully, the draft, offseason trades and the free agency signing period reflect the spirit of what we're being told. And, hopefully, the moves made thus far don't come back to haunt the team as they pursue the talent that they need to win.
|"As we look forward and start a new era with our public partnership with us, I promise you will get our best. ... Hopefully, we'll be bringing many playoff games here - as well as Stanley Cup finals games here."|
COMING FULL CIRCLE
In the end, it's about setting expectations and then meeting them. Had the team said, "We're going to double down and rebuild this year...and hope you enjoy the All-Star Game as we straighten things out," I'm sure that some fans would howl and/or leave the Blue Jackets fanbase altogether, but I for one would appreciate the candor. I also could rationalize the moves thus far through that lens.
That's not what we've been told, however. We've been told by the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations that expectations are too low - in the locker room, on the ice and in the executive suite. We've been told by the majority owner that the team will be giving its best in this new era. The problem is, the things we've seen thus far this offseason don't speak to higher expectations. They don't suggest a team that's giving its best to bring playoff games to Columbus, to bring the Blue Jackets to the finals. They suggest stability and consistency, and stability and consistency is not what you want when you have a fully-furnished apartment in the NHL's sub-basement.
I know I'm just one fan, one voice among thousands of ticket package holders. But I care about the Blue Jackets...and the idea of what the Blue Jackets can and should be, both in the league and in the community. Just like Kings coach Darryl Sutter said, "It's about winning, right?...Anything else is just B.S." He should know, having coached in two Stanley Cup Finals thus far in his career.
There is time to get this right and reshape the roster to play consistent, winning NHL hockey. As I said, what we've seen thus far are only the opening moves in a long game. So please, Blue Jackets, play the long game and get it right. Get the talent that we need here in Columbus. Give the money to the players who will win you games.
Meet the expectations that you have set. Please.