When the Columbus Blue Jackets hired Scott Howson away from the Edmonton Oilers the team was coming off the sixth straight season in which they missed the playoffs. The team Howson inherited suffered from a variety of issues, most notably the lack of organizational depth, due mostly to the mismanagement of assets by his predecessor Doug MacLean. The two seasons after taking over the team were promising and they finally broke through and made the playoffs in 2009 and seemed to be moving in the right direction. Unfortunately the team has been unable to build upon that success. The calendar year of 2011 saw the team post a 24-43-15 record, one that would net them 63 points if it were an NHL season. Changes need to be made, not just to the roster but also to the organization’s management as well. The firing of head coach Scott Arniel and the decision to hire Craig Patrick as a senior advisor are steps in the right direction, but simply not enough. The former general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins should add an experienced voice to the management team and help lend some credibility to the organization as well. It remains unclear who actually made the decision to hire Patrick, whether it was Scott Howson or a move that came from upper management or even ownership. While there is speculation that Patrick could replace Howson should he be fired, Patrick’s public statements seem to dispute that viewpoint. He is going to continue living in Pittsburgh and has no plans to move to Columbus. With Howson’s seat becoming increasingly warmer, an analysis of his drafting and major moves seems in order. I will go year by year, covering his draft picks, free agent signings, and trades. I will concentrate on moves that have had a significant impact on the Blue Jackets and on their top prospects.
Drafted – Jakub Voracek (1st, #7), Maxim Mayorov (4th, #94), Allen York (6th, #158)
Signed – Jan Hejda, Derek MacKenzie, Michael Peca
Major Trades – Curtis Glencross (Dick Tarnstrom), Adam Foote (first-round + fourth-round draft picks), Sergei Fedorov (Theo Ruth), Jody Shelley (sixth-round draft pick)
In his first season Howson added some players that have had a significant impact on the team. The pick of Voracek was a good start to Howson’s drafting record. The 2007 draft was one of the worst in recent memory in terms of top-end talent, so far producing only one all-star (Patrick Kane, #1 overall). Howson did well to select a player that was productive for a few seasons and then traded to acquire Jeff Carter. Mayorov and York have both played at the AHL and NHL levels and show some promise. The signings of Hejda and MacKenzie proved to be shrewd, cost-effective moves with MacKenzie still playing solid minutes for the team. Hejda was the best defenseman on the team for two seasons before suffering a decline last season after which he was allowed to walk. Peca was at the end of his career, but was brought in to bring some leadership and grit which he did well. In hindsight the Curtis Glencross for Dick Tarnstrom trade is one Howson would like to have back, however the move made sense at the time. Glencross did not show the scoring touch he possesses now and Tarnstrom possessed the sort of offensive skills that the Blue Jackets sorely needed on defense. Some fans still lament the trade that sent Shelley out of town, but it did not have a negative effect on the team itself. Howson also managed to swindle first and fourth round draft picks from the Avalanche for a broken-down, disgruntled Adam Foote and a young prospect for the aging Sergei Fedorov who simply had nothing left in the tank. Overall Howson seemed to have a productive season, he drafted fairly well and while he didn’t make many moves, the ones he did make were important. He made some mistakes, and botched a couple draft picks but didn’t commit any major gaffes.
Drafted – Nikita Filatov (1st, #6), Cody Goloubef (2nd, #37), Matt Calvert (5th, #127), Tomas Kubalik (5th, #135), Cam Atkinson (6th, #157)
Signed – Mike Commodore, Kristian Huselius
Major Trades – Colorado’s first-round draft pick and Columbus’ third-round draft pick (R.J. Umberger, fourth-round draft pick), Gilbert Brule (Raffi Torres), Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche (Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman), Clay Wilson and sixth-round draft pick (Jason Williams), Pascal Leclaire and second-round draft pick (Antoine Vermette)
Howson made some good moves and some questionable moves during the offseason after a productive draft. Four of the Jackets draft picks have played in the NHL to varying degrees of success, with Goloubef logging heavy minutes at the AHL level. The acquisition of Umberger has been significant for the Blue Jackets. Umberger hasn’t missed a single game since the trade and the former Ohio State Buckeye has become a fan-favorite mostly for his intensity and outspokenness. Howson continued to add players that fit the mold of then head coach Ken Hitchcock with the signing of free agent Mike Commodore, a big bruising defenseman who had playoff and Stanley Cup experience from his time in Carolina, and the trade of former first-round pick Brule for agitator Raffi Torres. Howson also shipped out the enigmatic Zherdev and brought in two defenseman in Tyutin and Backman. Tyutin has been a solid fixture on the blueline since while Backman had a year most fans would like to forget. Unfortunately some of the moves were questionable at best. When your head coach plays a defensive-style of game that requires the forwards to backcheck well it defies logic to draft and sign two players who play defense like Spanish matadors. The selection of Nikita Filatov would have made sense with a different coach, but with a bevy of players available more suited to Hitchcock’s style the choice made no sense. The signing of Huselius was equally questionable. Graced with exceptional skill and vision Huselius can be a marvel to watch with the puck. Unfortunately he is streaky and doesn’t play as well without the puck. With the team in the mix for the playoffs Howson went out and brought in some help at the deadline acquiring two skilled forwards in WIlliams and Vermette while only giving up draft picks and Leclaire, a good goalie when healthy which unfortunately was never.
The team went on to make the playoffs where they were swept by the division rival Detroit Red Wings in four games. While he should get credit for bringing in solid players at a good price like Tyutin, Vermette, Umberger, and Torres, Howson also overpaid Commodore (since bought-out) and Huselius. His drafting improved from the previous year, but as with the trades there didn’t seem to be a cohesive vision, he simply wasn’t drafting or signing players that fit they system the current coach was playing. Howson’s main goals in his first two seasons were to re-stock the prospect pool, improve the defense, and find more top-line players. In doing so he overspent on questionable free-agent signings, but the trades he brokered showed deftness and ability to get good value for his assets. Howson’s propensity to overspend on marginal signings and unwarranted contract extensions would come to be a serious concern in the coming years.