Thursday, September 16, 2010

Time to step up: The front office


First, let's be clear on what I hope to accomplish in this post.  The term "Front Office" is very vague and could include everything from ticketing to marketing to arena negotiations to game operations to National Hockey League relations.  And there is a ton to discuss on those points, as the Columbus Blue Jackets - for all the many things they do so well - have challenges like any organization.  If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I comment every now and then on these types of issues.

For this post, however, I'm sticking to the hockey side of the house.  Player selection, player allocation, salary cap.  I'll be talking about the work performed by general manager Scott Howson and assistant general manager Chris MacFarland.  The integration of actual sport with business - which these two do on a daily basis - is intricate, and I've received no formal training in this line of work.  Therefore, I again implore my readers to fill in any (likely) gaps with your own thoughts in the comments.  Together, we can get it right - just as the CBJ need to get it right - for this is serious business.

Entering his fourth season as general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, it's time for Howson's team to shine.  And lest anyone suggest otherwise, this IS Howson's team.  Comparing the roster at the start of the 2006-2007 season to the anticipated roster (as predicted by The Cannon) to start the 2010-2011 season, we see the following:

On 06-07 roster but not 10-11
  • Forwards: David Vyborny, Freddy Modin, Geoff Platt, Jason Chimera, Jaroslav Balastik, Mark Hartigan, Jody Shelley, Dan Fritsche, Gilbert Brule, Anson Carter
  • Defense: Aaron Johnson, Ron Hainsey, Duvie Wescott, Anders Erickson, Adam Foote, Ole-Kristian Tollefson
  • Goaltender: Pascal Leclaire
On 10-11 roster but not on 06-07
On both rosters
To his credit, Rusty Klesla is a holdover from the prior regime as well.  He must've been hurt to start the 06-07 season, but I am not certain on that.  The point remains, however, that Scott Howson demolished the team that he inherited and started over, pretty much from scratch.  He mined the weak farm system for some talent, signed some players as free agents, traded for others and drafted a couple - but Howson's arrival pushed a giant red "reset" button on the entire Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.  

Scott Howson remade the Blue Jackets roster over
four seasons.  Did he do enough to get Columbus to the
Stanley Cup playoffs - on a consistent basis?
Howson is a smart man, no two ways about it.  An NHLer by background and a lawyer by training, some credit him with playing a disproportionately significant role in the Edmonton Oilers' Stanley Cup finals run in 2005-06 when he was the assistant general manager (and blame his departure after the 06-07 season as a major factor in the Oilers' swift demise).  He has demonstrated time (Antoine Vermette) and again (Anton Stralman) that he can identify emerging talent before others do, and that he's willing to take on short-term deadweight (Christian Backman) if it means that he gets a long-term gem (Fedor Tyutin) and can dump a headache (Nik Zherdev) in the process.  Not every NHL-level trade turns out to be a lopsided victory for Howson, but I honestly can't recall any where he came out on the short end.  Howson professes to not be hemmed in by an internal team budget, but he also doesn't spend like a drunken sailor.  

Howson also is a pretty shrewd operator when it comes to the draft.  He (and his scouting staff) have done an especially good job using the draft to rebuild the team on a more sustainable and predictable course than trades or free agency allows.  Surely there is more to the draft than the first round alone, but look at how Howson's first round picks have fared.
  • His first CBJ draft pick, Jake Voracek, is firmly cemented in the top two forward lines and is on the verge of becoming an NHL star.  
  • Nikita Filatov's star potential has been only slightly diminished by last season's mishaps, but Filatov is back in Columbus and ready to start anew in an effort to make the top six forwards.  
  • John Moore (a 21st overall pick, no less) represents Howson's efforts to patiently rebuild the CBJ defensive corps depth, and Moore is coming along well from all accounts.  It should not surprise anyone if Moore makes the CBJ roster out of training camp this season - he's just that good.  
  • Ryan Johansen, this year's first round pick, defied the conventional wisdom when drafted at fourth overall (but it came out afterward that Johansen likely wouldn't have lasted much longer as other teams were coveting him as well) and acquitted himself well at the recent prospect camp in Traverse City on outmanned CBJ teams.  
[Digression: By comparison, only Nash, Brassard and Klesla remain from former CBJ general manager Doug MacLean's seven first round picks (Columbus had two first-rounders in 2006).  Outside of Nik Zherdev, it's arguable as to whether any of those who are no longer in Columbus have come close to living up to their potential since leaving town.  Whether that's an indictment of MacLean's choices or the way he "nurtured" young talent, I cannot say.  Facts are facts, though, and MacLean's drafting has not yielded fruit in a manner consistent with the team's draft position over the years.]  

He has also proven that, to borrow the expression, he can sew a purse out of a sow's ear if need be.  Taking the roster that he inherited, he performed enough roster re-engineering through the annual garage sale that is NHL free agency (and was lucky enough to see Steve Mason emerge as an incredible goalie) to steer the Blue Jackets to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in the team's history.  As readers know, that team "maxxed out" in being swept by Detroit, however, leading to the latest CBJ incarnation: The Youth Movement.  

Whatever your opinion about Scott Howson, it's hard
to argue that he has a great eye for hockey talent
Ah, youth.  Howson swept veteran after veteran out the door, some with good cause (Backman) and others whose absences would haunt him in the 2009-2010 season (Mike Peca definitely, Jason Williams perhaps).  In their place, he installed youngsters like Jake Voracek, Derick Brassard and - for a brief period - Nikita Filatov.  As you've read throughout this "Time to step up series," the offense under-performed, the defense was too injured to even perform, few players were in good game shape until it was too late, and our goalie situation was a mess.  Rather than build upon the playoff run, Howson's team backslid into 14th place in the NHL Western Conference.  Even mid-season injections of veteran leadership (Chris Clark) didn't work.  

But Howson believes in his plan.  He believes in the youth that he has assembled on the roster.  He (stubbornly?) refused to move any of his young core in the offseason, instead finally inserting his own choices as coaches for the squad.  Even there, Howson displayed savvy in nearly nabbing Guy Boucher before being upstaged by the current object of irrational NHL affection, Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Like almost always, however, Howson had a backup plan in place and signed Scott Arniel before the CBJ fan base could say, "What the heck happened?"

Now, Scott Howson has his coaches to match up with his team.  On paper, it's an intriguing group.  Few guaranteed successes in the bunch, but so much promise to be enjoyed over the course of the season.  As this whole series has indicated, everyone needs to step up to see it through.  No slackers on this ship!

If the current configuration succeeds and the Blue Jackets make a multi-year run into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Howson is the Patient Genius who had the long-term vision to guide a lost franchise to glory. If, however, 2009-10 was not a bump in the road but instead the beginning of a longer slide, Howson likely will have to answer for his decisions - be it with yet another roster rebuild or possibly even his job.

I like Scott Howson's work in Columbus - a LOT - and hope both for his and the club's sake that they turn the Columbus Blue Jackets into the franchise that the team's dedicated fans so desperately want (and, after 10 years, deserve).  This franchise needs to stop hitting the reset button and start hitting the jackpot.

[UPDATE: Here's what Howson himself had to say about the season ahead:]

One of the fascinating subplots over the past season or two in CBJ-land has been the fate of its American Hockey League franchise.  Since I started watching the Jackets seriously in 2007, it seems as if there has always been a touch of tension between the Syracuse Crunch and the Blue Jackets.  The Crunch apparently wanted an AHL playoff-qualifying team (with a roster of top AHL talent to get them there), and the Jackets wanted the Crunch to serve solely as a talent development vehicle for the NHL club.  These tensions are not unique to Columbus, but it boiled over into a dissolution of the marriage between the two franchises.  Syracuse has now moved on to partner with the Anaheim Ducks, and the Blue Jackets are in an arrangement with the Springfield (MA) Falcons.  

Chris MacFarland gets the unenviable task of
satisfying the Columbus Blue Jackets' talent needs
while icing a competitive hockey team in Springfield
Why all this matters to Chris MacFarland is, well, he's the Columbus staff member responsible for filling the AHL roster.  Another attorney by training, he takes whomever is not called up to Columbus or sent to juniors or the ECHL and builds the team.  It's a tricky job, needing to provide space for talent development, injury rehabilitation or hiding salaries while also giving the AHL franchise a reason to sell tickets to their fans.    It's even trickier when you recognize how shallow the CBJ talent system pool has been.  

Things are turning around now, and Columbus' training camp will see a spirited battle for spots on the third and fourth lines of forwards and the third pair of defensemen.  Those who don't make it on the opening day roster will likely go to Springfield and be the stalwarts of MacFarland's Falcons.  We're also on the verge of seeing Scott Howson's diligent restocking of defensive prospects bear fruit with a young, raw but talented team of blue liners in the AHL as well.  

Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon has made a number of not-so-veiled comments about Columbus' lack of talent on the Crunch roster.  Springfield general manager Bruce Landon has taken just the opposite tack, suggesting that MacFarland and the CBJ have given the Falcons a combination of impressive veteran talent (like, presumably, Derek MacKenzie and Grant Clitsome) and exciting young prospects (Matt Calvert, John Moore, and others). 

I'm not going to pass judgement on MacFarland's work but will be watching the Falcons' performance a little more closely this year as the AHLers who step up in Springfield will likely be the first callups to Columbus in case of injury.  If you want to keep an eye on the Falcons, I'd suggest following En4cer45's blog (he covers CBJ prospects at all levels) and MassLive's Springfield Falcons coverage.  


  1. Scott Howson was hired, presumably for his "hockey sense". In his fourth year, we are beginning to see some of his vision. I've heard from many "experts" that it takes from five to seven years to "build" a franchise from the ice up. If that is true, this will be a very enjoyable season to watch. Considering the fact that D. Mclean left the cupboards bare and a lot of overpaid, Past-time veterans when he departed, I'm still willing to give the current regime something of a pass. I would like to know one thing; in 09-10, when the players decided they didn't want to "buy" what K.Hitchcock was selling anymore, what was Scott Howsons reaction to their less-than full effort on the ice??? And having seen that scenario once, what will happen if it occurs again??? The inmates CANNOT RUN THE ASYLUM!!! I happen to believe that Scott Howson has the ability to be in the "big chair" and the cahones to pull it off. I'm not the one he needs to convince.

  2. I've liked Howson's work ever since he came for the reasons you stated earlier, patience, building through youth, letting his kids come up the right way and building depth. His Jackets remind me of the early 90s Cleveland Indians, a team also built that way.

    But you have to prove it on the ice. And he has a lot to prove.

  3. JFH I read or heard somewhere that Howson said I changed the coaches if I see trouble I will pull the trigger on players. It might have been on bzarcher's blog


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