Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun question why the Blue Jackets would fire Scott Arniel at this point in the season and wonder what is next for this last-place team.
Burnside: Well, it's a good thing the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t rush into making a coaching change. Exactly halfway through another miserable season in Columbus, after a 7-4 loss to the next-worst team in the NHL, the Anaheim Ducks, the Jackets pulled the pin on head coach Scott Arniel. The good news is that the last-place Blue Jackets are only 20 points out of eighth place in the Western Conference. Oh wait, that’s not good news.
The weird part of Monday’s firing isn’t that it’s surprising. It’s not. What’s surprising is that having essentially thrown in the towel on the season by not firing Arniel two months ago, the question is why now? After all, losing to teams like Anaheim actually enhances the Blue Jackets’ chances of getting the first overall pick in June’s draft, so why mess with a winning combination, as it were?
As usual, the Blue Jackets continue to careen around without a clue. What a colossal disappointment this franchise has been. I spoke to one general manager recently who suggested that the NHL should buy it and fold it; that’s how ugly it is there. Yes, there have been injuries. Jeff Carter went out with a separated shoulder last night, but he’s been a disappointment when he’s been healthy and had managed to score in just one of the Blue Jackets’ past 10 games. But this is a fundamentally flawed team from the goal on out. So the firing of Arniel is really just the appetizer to what will surely be the dismissal of GM Scott Howson the moment the season ends and yet another rebuild to sell to the ever-diminishing fan base in Columbus.
LeBrun: I spoke with Howson, briefly, around 10:30 a.m. ET this morning after the firing was announced. One thing he said is that he broke the season down in three segments. Obviously the opening segment was brutal, but Howson said that between injuries early on plus the eight-game suspension to top defenseman James Wisniewski, he wanted to wait until he saw the team he assembled last summer together before he made big decisions. Then the team had a stretch when it went 7-5-3 and he held out hope the season might be saved. But with the team winning just twice in its past 11 games, he decided enough was enough behind the bench.
"I just wanted to move the team in a new direction with a different head coach," Howson told me. "Scott tried everything and he was running out of answers. I didn’t see much hope in moving forward with him. I just felt this needed to be done."
Howson was off to address the players after we hung up. Some of those players won’t be around after Feb. 27. When I spoke with Howson on Dec. 28, he declared himself open for business on the trade front.
"We’re going to be open to discussions, yes," Howson told me regarding potential trades.
"Certainly between now and over the next couple of months, we’re going to be very active, yes."
And so, Scotty, the news is just beginning with the Jackets.
Burnside: Well, opening up the garage sale on your team is easier said than done, no? We’ve discussed the issues that will confront Calgary GM Jay Feaster in trying to trade off some of his deadwood (or rather Darryl Sutter’s deadwood, but I digress), given no-trade clauses and huge contracts. Howson is going to have a similar issue, given that much of what he’s assembled in Columbus is either undesirable by other teams or wildly overpriced given the contracts the GM has bestowed upon his underachieving squad. Honestly, look at that roster, and who’s going to want Kristian Huselius, who will be a UFA in July but is still making $4.75 million and is back on the disabled list? Steve Mason? Ha. That ship has sailed. Other than Rick Nash, there isn’t a single blue-chip player Howson could consider moving in the hopes of getting good young assets in return and helping to turn around this moribund franchise.
And for me, there’s a bigger issue that should give ownership pause. Even if you’re considering trading your franchise player (Nash has indicated he would be willing to discuss waiving his no-move clause), is Howson the guy you want making that kind of move?
No way Howson is around for this summer’s draft and, if that’s the case, maybe ownership should be looking at finding a replacement now at the GM position to carry the team through the trade deadline rather than waiting until the draft so that a new GM, presumably better-suited to move the team forward, is already in place to make such important decisions.
LeBrun: Well, let’s clear a few things up. First, Nash didn’t come out and say he’d be open to a trade. He answered a hypothetical question about how he’d react if the Jackets asked him about a trade. Nash’s agent, Joe Resnick, reiterated to me last week that Nash doesn’t want to be moved and wants to be part of the solution. Howson also reiterated to me that he has zero intention of approaching Nash with a trade request. Vaclav Prospal (UFA July 1) is likely the most desirable rental player the Jackets have to sell off before the deadline. Jeff Carter -- in the first season of an 11-year, $58 million contract -- is the biggest name, though, when it comes to what the Jackets could get in return. Officially, Howson has said repeatedly he doesn’t want to trade his No. 1 center. But my sense is that since Carter remains unhappy in Columbus, and would welcome a move, it’s something Howson is going to have to consider, whether that’s before Feb. 27 or in the offseason.
As for Howson’s future? Obviously it should shock no one if he’s gone when the season ends. Whether he hired his own replacement in consultant Craig Patrick (former Pens GM) remains to be seen. Somewhat amazingly, 10½ mediocre seasons (one playoff berth) in the history of this franchise and only two GMs have been at the helm. Now that’s patience.
Burnside: Well, with all due respect to Vinny Prospal, what’s the top end Howson can expect to get in return for the veteran forward at the deadline? Third-round pick? At best. That’ll really turn the ship around. As for Carter, he’s hurt, he’s proved to be at best a pedestrian playoff performer and he’s got a monster contract that looked impossible to peddle when he signed it in Philadelphia. No way lightning strikes twice on that deal, especially given that Carter hasn’t really embraced his move to Columbus.
If I’m a GM looking for an offensive jolt (hello, Dean Lombardi), I still don’t touch that contract with a 10-foot pole. And certainly it’s a noble sentiment that Nash wants to become part of the solution in Columbus, but at some point, doesn’t there have to be a frank discussion about when that solution might actually become apparent? This team is a million miles from anywhere. Nash is 27 and has played in exactly four postseason games. What a waste. Like Jarome Iginla, another franchise player wasting away with a franchise that faces a long uphill climb to respectability, Nash represents a chance to collect top assets that will be critical to actually moving forward. Not saying it’s Nash’s responsibility to pave the way for a trade, but he remains the lone asset that will allow the Blue Jackets to start building for the future. Tough decisions, but that’s what happens when a team is run into the ground as the Blue Jackets have been virtually from the moment they entered the league.
LeBrun: I disagree with you on Carter. I think he’s still got all-world talent and, when healthy and motivated, can do wonders for a team. Just not in Columbus. If the Jackets really wanted to look at the trade market for him, they could find a partner, in my opinion. I do, however, agree with you on Nash. I think the Jackets captain needs to sit back this summer over a cold one while sitting on a dock somewhere and fully re-examine his incredible loyalty to the market and franchise. I honestly give him credit for wanting to stick around because he truly feels that one day, when (if) this thing finally gets on track, winning a championship in Columbus would mean so much more than jumping ship and winning elsewhere. That’s what he told me in September during training camp. That was before yet another nightmare season for his club. I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind would criticize him if in June he informed the Jackets that perhaps time has come for a change.
Until the next coaching firing, Scotty.