There was a good stretch of Game 3 between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night where it looked like the upstart team out of Ohio was set to hand down an upset to a recognized superpower. A few bounces later and the Penguins sit ahead in the series this morning. Never mind that the Penguins controlled the game for most of the evening, or that experience ultimately won out, or that puck luck helped Pittsburgh avoid embarrassment… instead, let’s focus on a Blue Jackets team that appears to have finally figured out how to succeed in the NHL.
There’s no quick and easy explanation for the Blue Jackets arrival as a playoff team, although a move from the West to the East certainly helped. In a look at possession numbers, hockey blogger and analytics authority Tyler Dellow noted a sharp improvement in Columbus’ ability to control the play beginning in December. Perhaps it was an adjustment in head coach Todd Richards’ philosophy, or maybe a spike in the development of young players like Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray, et al. Maybe it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. Whatever the reason for it, Columbus got better shortly before the midpoint of the season.
As Dellow found through his analysis, a big part of the club’s ability to improve its showing through possession was the play of Artem Anisimov, Jenner, and Nick Foligno. The aforementioned trio of players were not new to Richards’ game plan in December, although maybe he found a better way to utilize them. All three are pieces were brought into the fold by former Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson. It’s funny how so many observers will point to the installation of John Davidson to the front office and subsequent arrival of Jarmo Kekäläinen to replace Howson as major turning points in the franchise’s history. There’s certainly some validity to that. Kekäläinen is proving to be an excellent navigator of the salary cap, and the front office’s faith in Richards has paid off. Still, this is very much Scott Howson’s hockey team.
Scott Howson’s turbulent roster construction process
Howson got a bum rap for the franchise’s inability to improve upon its first ever playoff appearance in 2008-09. While Howson effectively cleaned up Doug MacLean’s mess over his first two seasons as GM, his limitless faith in Steve Mason and inconsistent drafting record (Nikita Filatov, anyone?) were major factors in leading the Blue Jackets back into rebuilding mode shortly after the franchise’s finest moment. Then came the 2011 offseason and the infamous Jeff Carter trade.
Howson saw an opportunity to add an elite goal scorer in Carter via trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. He sent a big chunk of the future in Jakub Voracek, a first round pick (Sean Couturier), and a third round selection (Nick Cousins) to Philadelphia. Carter had just signed an 11-year deal with the Flyers in November of 2010, thus he was blindsided by the news of the trade and went AWOL for several days before report to the Blue Jackets. It was not a great look for the team’s image, or how they were perceived around the league and/or by hockey fans in general.
Things got worse as 2012 wore on. Carter would demand a trade and end up in Los Angeles in exchange for Jack Johnson and a first round pick (Marko Dano). Mason descended into sub-.900 save percentage territory. Free agent acquisitions like James Wisniewski and Vinny Prospal didn’t pay the kind of immediate dividends as planned. Eventually, even face of the franchise Rick Nash would ask to be moved.
The return on Rick Nash in a July, 2012 trade with the New York Rangers was a pretty good haul, but it didn’t sit so well in the court of public opinion. Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a 1st round selection in 2013 (Kerby Rychel) was great value for Nash, and two of those pieces are big reasons why Columbus is a playoff team right now. Howson was the man behind the acquisition of 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, too. Still, Mason’s decline, the Carter catastrophe, failed picks like Nikita Filatov, and the Nash trade all set Howson up to take the fall in February of 2013.
A regime change
John Davidson extended a few months worth of rope to Howson upon taking over as President of Hockey Operations in October of 2012. When Howson was finally relieved of his duties and Jarmo Kekäläinen was named GM, it signaled that a regime change was in effect. Kekäläinen pulled off a suave move in a late season push for the playoffs, grabbing Marian Gaborik from the Rangers in Year One, but the Blue Jackets would fall short. Kekäläinen first offseason saw the arrival of Nathan Horton on a six-year $24 million deal, as well as a solid showing at the 2013 entry draft thanks to a lot of Howson’s past wheeling and dealing.
The Blue Jackets are a better hockey team today than they were at any point in the Howson era, but that doesn’t preclude him from playing a big role in getting the team to where it is right now. His fingerprints are all over the roster, from his quiet acquisitions like Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin, and Nick Foligno, to some great draft choices like Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Ryan Murray, to players like Anisimov, Dubinsky, Wisniewski, Bobrovsky, and R.J. Umberger who he picked up over the course of his tenure… Howson’s impact cannot be ignored.
Howson is in Edmonton now, which doesn’t really constitute a better place. It’s a place, though.
The Blue Jackets have made for a nice little hockey story this season. Let’s not beat around the bush here, though. They’re not going to win the Stanley Cup. Kekäläinen has a couple of burgeoning stars in Johansen and Murray to work with, along with a good mix of solid two-way type forwards and depth that can provide some secondary scoring. There are question marks on defense, though. Is Jack Johnson, who has a nice offensive skillset but lacks the defensive ability to be a shutdown guy, really a defenseman you want to lean on for 25 minutes per night? A decent playoff performance, or at least the perception of one, might be enough to move the 27-year old this summer something with more upside.
There are some nice pieces coming up through the system, but whether the likes of Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Alexander Wennberg can contribute right away is guessing game fodder. Banking on Johansen to shoot nearly 14% and Nathan Horton to be healthy would be a relatively negligent plan moving towards the 2014-15 season. The foundation is solid, but some treatment is required to prevent cracks from breaking it down.
Sure, he missed on a few first round picks, got stuck in a state of rebuilding, and relied on Mason for far too long, but Scott Howson wasn’t half as bad as he’s been made out to be. You can point to changes in the front office and some minor personnel changes on the ice as reasons for the Blue Jackets’ arrival, but you have to wonder if a jump to the Eastern Conference under Howson could have paid similar dividends sooner than later.
He swung and missed on occasion, and the timing on some of his moves was certainly questionable. With a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender, emergence of a few draft picks, the Rick Nash trade in the rearview, and the franchise’s first playoff victory.. all can be forgiven. It was Brian Burke who once said "Sometimes you do the hard work and set the table and somebody else eats the meal." That may be more applicable in Howson’s situation than Burke’s.
Whatever the case, Columbus has itself a nice hockey product to call its own after years of suffering and disappointment. Regular season attendance isn’t quite where it needs to be yet, but the growing pains today are of a more muscle mass building variety than the aches and pains of adolescence. The Blue Jackets are all grown up on us.