Tags

, , , , , , ,

I don’t always like to dwell on the negatives, I promise. But after a season this bad and terrible results leading up to it, this is something I’ve been considering for a while.

This headache of a Columbus Blue Jackets season was made more interesting (or perhaps distressing) by the sudden rise of a very vocal group of angry fans. They pushed to make their views known: they wanted change at the very top. They were tired of continued failure and demanded/protested for change. Since then, this F.A.N.S. (For A New Start) group has gathered signatures and work to contact Blue Jackets’ ownership. You can check out their website here. The target of their ire has been management, specifically Scott Howson and Mike Priest.

While their approach seems to be heavy-handed and clumsy at times, the F.A.N.S. have a point. But their view is not shared across the fanbase. More than a few authors have suggested that we should simply recognize the light at the end of the tunnel or that we should somehow consider Scott Howson as a roster ninja who typically makes the right choice. But even if the goaltending situation is finally fixed, we’ve discussed in this space that the Jackets need much more than a reshaping of their forward corps. And it goes much deeper than simply the day-to-day roster. Yes, things are awfully screwed up in Jacket-land, and it’s tough for me to consider Scott Howson free from blame or, quite frankly, any good at his job.

He’s no Doug MacLean, but that doesn’t mean he should be employed. As if you really needed reminding, let’s take a look at the five biggest reasons why Scott Howson has been an abject failure in Columbus.

Jordan Eberle and Steve Mason - Columbus Blue Jackets v Edmonton Oilers1. His Faith in Steve Mason. Let’s start with the easy reason, the one we can all agree on. Steve Mason is awful. In fact, Steve Mason has nearly always been awful. Yes, it’s nice to wax nostalgic on the idea of the former Calder Trophy winner, but even that is a flawed view. Even in 2010, outsiders were discussing Howson’s decision to give Mason a contract extension. In particular, the always-brilliant blog Brodeur is a Fraud had the following prophetic words:

“Columbus is making a bet that they didn’t need to make (or at least one they didn’t need to make right now), and they likely parted with more money than they needed to, given comparable contracts. I’ll be interested to see how it works out for them. I think we’ll know a more about Steve Mason after this season, but as of right now I’m not convinced he’s an above-average NHL goalie, either now or in the near future. “

His observation was supported by the existing data and suggests that decision-making in Columbus was severely impaired (or otherwise foolish) at the time. At the end of the 09-10 season, this is what of Steve Mason’s save percentage looked like for every game:

So we see Mason, averaging a .907 SV%, with only one good season, and with maddening inconsistency (the standard deviation of his single game save percentages was an astounding .086), was given a contract extension a year before it was necessary. Quite simply, the Blue Jackets did not know what they were signing. Scott Howson’s choice to lock up an unknown quantity was merely a bad choice at the time. But, as we all know, it gets worse. Woefully, terribly worse. The good games disappear, and the bad games just get even more terrible:

And it’s worth noting that for each of the past three seasons, Steve Mason has been given the majority of minutes in net but has never been the team leader in save percentage. So it’s not the defense (although they’re by no means great). Other goalies have come in and done better behind the same team. No, it’s Steve Mason, a goalie that Scott Howson has put his faith in for 4 years. Only once was he even an average netminder. Howson’s laughable inability to address the mess in net has mortally wounded the franchise (and the now-ridiculous contract with Steve Mason makes him nearly impossible to move).


2. Trading for Jack Johnson (for now).
Say what you will about character, it’s not a sufficient argument for getting a player. And say what you will about Howson’s handling of the Jeff Carter fiasco (certainly good he got anything back at all), but it’s a problem when you’re not getting anything good back.

Yes, Jack Johnson is suddenly very popular for wanting to be in Columbus and it’s nice to see a player give maximum effort. But character and effort are not enough. Jack Johnson has been chronicled as being a defensive mess in LA, and he’s been pretty bad since coming to Columbus too. Thanks to the guys at The Cannon and The Union Blue, we can take a look at Johnson’s scoring chance differentials. Specifically, The Coach over at The Union Blue has a great article examining even-strength scoring chance rates over the course of the season.

It’s not looking very good for Mr. Johnson. Despite his good attitude and offensive skills, Johnson was the second worst defenseman in Columbus for scoring rate differential and wasn’t even generating scoring chances at noticeably high clip. Quite frankly, Jack Johnson will have to score like Mike Green of a few years ago to overcome his defensive issues.

Make no mistake: I want Johnson to become a successful player who helps to inspire his teammates to reach new height. But his numbers just don’t suggest that he’s going to make that kind of drastic change. Even if he improves slightly, he’s still going to be more valuable to his team off the ice than on it. And that’s no good. So barring any sudden improvement, this trade can only be viewed as a glaring negative.

I realize this point is going to be extremely unpopular, but let’s consider two different angles on this.

a) Jeff Carter is a top-tier scorer with a history of excellence in the NHL. Unless his character issues are extreme for every team in the NHL, a fair number of organizations should be interested in his 30-goal-scoring services and reasonable defensive play. That kind of valuable piece was moved for a net-negative player (Los Angeles was improved simply by losing Johnson). Even if LA was the only other team interested in Carter (and I doubt they were), was Howson so desperate to move the guy as to not negotiate for a bigger return?

b) The most important net results of the Carter/Johnson trades are: Jake Voracek and the 8th pick in 2011 moved in return for Jack Johnson and a conditional 1st round pick (29 or 30th this year, unknown next year). Even if Sean Couturier would’ve gone earlier, take a look at the 6th-10th overall picks from the 2011 Draft: Zibanejad, Scheifele, Couturier, Hamilton, Brodin. Somebody out of those players would’ve been free at 8th. So instead of having a reasonable 2nd line forward (and net positive Corsi Rel player) in Jake Voracek, and a potential future 1st line forward/top 4 d-man in any of those draft picks, the Blue Jackets have a defensive mess in Jack Johnson.

Howson’s urgency to move Carter came at a great cost, and that’s the addition of a terrible defensive presence to a team that needs to stop allowing goals. Howson’s over-correction leaves the team much weaker at forward and with a negative contributor on the blueline. It’s difficult to look at his handling of the Carter trade (and eventual Johnson pickup) as anything other than a complete failure.

3. The Contracts of Rick Nash, RJ Umberger, Fedor Tyutin, and James Wisniewski. Please take a moment to visit the Blue Jackets CapGeek page. Are we all set? Let’s see what we’ve got.

There are four Howson-signed players with terms lasting longer than the next 3 seasons: Nash, Umberger, Tyutin, and Wisniewski. Long-term contracts are not necessarily a problem; they provide stability and keep key anchor pieces in place. The problem is in combination of contract amount and length. All four of these players have a cap hit of at least $4.5 million. Let that sink in for a bit. Literally none of these guys are worth the money they’re getting paid.

Not convinced? Let’s look at comparables to James Wisniewski. We don’t even have to ignore any entry level deals thanks to the high cap hit: Keith, Visnovsky, Yandle, Green, Seabrook, Byfuglien. Out of those six defensemen, only Seabrook is less productive on points than Wiz, but the Chicago d-man is better at defense. All the others? Slightly-to-significantly better at offense and all within $300,000 of Wisniewski’s cap hit. They’re also all examples of top-pairing d-men. Wiz is not, and he’s being paid like one. Howson’s urgency to pick up a (perceived) top defenseman led to him overpaying.

How about comparables to RJ Umberger on his contract that starts next year? Erat, Callahan, Michalek, Cole. There are also similarly overpaid players (Leino), but Umberger isn’t as good as these other guys. For such a “heart-and-soul” player who loves being in Columbus, it’s remarkable that Howson couldn’t get him for less.

How about Rick Nash, and his cap hit only $900,000 off from Sidney Freaking Crosby? (We’ll get to more about that #8million thing in just a moment). And here’s Fedor Tyutin too, although his cap hit is relatively reasonable compared to the other three.

You see, it’s tough for the team to improve when they’ve got $22.5 million of cap space tied down to only four not-really-top-level players. And it’s tough in two ways. The first is simply the cap space. This is less of a problem for Columbus, but does limit the overall ability of the team to pick up high-value players through free agency or trades. The second issue is the ability to move these four players. This has reared its head throughout the Rick Nash trade drama. It’s exceptionally difficult to move the fifth-highest cap hit in the NHL. The same thing applies to the underperforming RJ Umberger: if the Blue Jackets really wanted to shed his attachment to the past team, they’re going to have to con another organization into picking him up.

In following the Rick Nash trade request, the #CBJ realm on Twitter has seen liberal usage of the hashtag #8million to speak against Nash’s perceived lack of effort relative to his contract. While he may deserve some of that attention, it’s tough for me to consider that deal as anything other than another Howson failure. If Rick Nash isn’t worth that much (and he’s not) then why was he ever given that contract? Why couldn’t Howson negotiate enough to keep a player like Nash in town? If that was unsuccessful, why wasn’t he traded for a king’s ransom in 2009 following hilarious demands out of Nash’s agent for such a massive contract?

It’s really hard to point fingers anywhere else but to Howson on the contracts. This is where (in my view) the GM moves from being a poor hockey manager to an abysmal one. He has constructed a mess and now he’s left unable to clean up the waste he’s generated. The core of this team is effectively stuck in place thanks to Howson’s need to lock up players for much more than they deserve.

4. Ken Hitchcock, Scott Arniel (and their too-lengthy employments). Much was made about Scott Arniel’s employment this season, or rather, his length of employment. After one and a half seasons of ineptitude, angry remarks at reporters, and hilarious line combinations the coach was finally cut off. But it came too late to save a season. For a year that was supposed to be the great leap forward (you don’t trade assets that impact your future in the Carter deal if still in rebuild mode), it was an enormous fall back.

And the coaching staff was a fine place to start. Because, yet again, Howson did not have the right coach for his team. It’s also interesting to note that this was the case even with Ken Hitchcock. The always-insightful Dark Blue Jacket explores this concept by examining the different versions of the Columbus Blue Jackets under Scott Howson. And this only adds to the unfortunate coaching choices of the Blue Jacket GM. If he had a particular team style in mind, he should have moved for players to fit it and moved for a coach who would best use it.

Instead, we watched Ken Hitchcock struggle to deal with youth and a scoring-based team for far too long before he was fired. Then we watched Scott Arniel struggle to define any kind of identity before he was fired. Scott Howson in a recent press conference described his process of making Todd Richards the official new head coach. He said “I’m as urgent as anybody in making the right choice.” That’s not quite correct. Based on coaching moves up to this point, Howson has been quite the opposite of urgent and is only now trying to correct for that (and has potentially over-corrected).

Of course, it’s also very easy to point out that of Arniel, Boucher, Dineen, and Noel (the coaching candidates in 2010), Arniel ended up being far and away the worst of the lot. So not only did Howson fail to build a team that fit his coach, he also failed to get a good coach.

5. An Abysmal Losing Record. If you don’t agree with the logic of any of the other reasons, this is the final take-home one that Blue Jackets fans feel every night. Over the span of Scott Howson’s employment, let’s see the percentage of possible regular season points earned by the Jackets and some other “bottom feeders”

Team Point % Since 07-08
Edmonton Oilers 0.4523
New York Islanders 0.4523
Columbus Blue Jackets 0.4841
Winnipeg / Atlanta 0.4866
Toronto Maple Leafs 0.4915
Tampa Bay Lightning 0.4927
Colorado Avalanche 0.5061

The 3rd worst team in the NHL. That’s pretty terrible. Consider the teams below Columbus: Edmonton is in the midst of a lengthy and painful rebuild but may finally be seeing some of light at the end of the tunnel with a talented crop of forwards in place. However, their GM is (rightfully) in hot water for having been in command of the worst team in hockey. New York currently has one of the best players in the NHL in John Tavares, and has accordingly started to right the ship… but their GM is also quite poor.

So the only reason the Blue Jackets aren’t the worst team in the NHL over Scott Howson’s term are Steve Tambellini and Garth Snow. That’s pretty remarkable to be in such awful company.

Scott Howson: General Manager who has presided over an abysmal losing record, can’t manage cap hits whatsoever, gives enormous contracts to players who don’t deserve them, put his faith in an ECHL goalie, can’t figure out what kind of team or coach he wants to implement, and traded away an elite scorer for one of the worst defensive defensemen in the NHL. The Columbus prospect system doesn’t look impressive, and his draft record is unremarkable. If not for a very few positive trades, there wouldn’t be a single positive mark on his record.

You can choose to disagree with the methods and vocal nature of the F.A.N.S. group, but I find it very difficult to disagree with their conclusions. Scott Howson is and has been a terrible GM and doesn’t deserve to continue in his position (with or without the aid of Craig Patrick). That the Columbus Blue Jackets continue to employ him is simply astounding.

By keeping Scott Howson at the helm, I have no doubt that the Blue Jackets will continue to remain with the Oilers and Islanders at the bottom of the NHL. Things may improve from this year (and it’s hard to imagine another year so poor), but for the better part of five seasons it has been awful. It’s hard for things to get better when the person running things so poorly is in command and has no signs of improving.