Howson: 'Hitch has our 100-percent support'

January, 4, 2010

Despite all the goodwill Ken Hitchcock has built in Columbus (and deservedly so), you knew sooner or later his team's stunning freefall would eventually lead to speculation about the coach's job safety.

The speculation came strongly in a column by Columbus Dispatch writer Michael Arace on Monday.

The timing made sense in the wake of Andy Murray's firing in St. Louis. The Blues and Jackets had high expectations coming into this season after breakthrough playoff berths last season. Both have fell way short in 2009-10, and it cost a good coach his job in St. Louis. Now, the heat is on Hitch (who has two and half years left on his deal), one of the game's brightest bench bosses, but a man who needs some wins ASAP.

But by the time I phoned Jackets GM Scott Howson on Monday afternoon, it was clear he was already tired of the subject.

"I'm not going to get into a long discourse on Hitch," Howson said politely but firmly. "He has our 100-percent support and that's all I'm going to say.

"Our team is really struggling," he added. "Obviously, you win three in 23, that's pretty evident. We just have to try and find a way to start getting the ball to move in the right direction."

When I spoke with Hitchcock before Christmas, he told me he never ever been associated with a team that was struggling so much on the defensive side. The Jackets have actually tightened things up since then, but still aren't winning games.

What the heck has happened to this team?

"As it is in most of these cases, I think it's been a combination of things," Howson said. "Our goals against was a problem for the first 30 or so games. But if you look at our goals against in the last 2-3 weeks, it's been really good. Now we can't score. The power play has gone a little dry lately."

The constant issue, Howson said, lies with his team's five-on-five play. The Jackets rank dead last in the NHL in five-on-five goals for/against ratio.

"If you look at our players' plus-minus stats, that's pretty evident," said Howson. "We have a lot of minus players and a lot of high numbers there [R.J. Umberger is minus-14], and that's a reflection of the five-on-five play."

The team also lacks confidence. When the opposition scores a goal, you can see the Jackets' collective shoulders slump, even on TV. The battle is also mental right now.

"The other thing that's hurt us is that we are one of the worst teams in the third period," said Howson. "That's hurt us a lot, and I think that's a reflection of a lot of things. We just haven't played well in the third period, we haven't held leads and we haven't come back."

Howson tried to help his team last week with a trade, acquiring character in forward Chris Clark and blue-line help for Hitchcock in Milan Jurcina. Will there be more trades?

"You're always looking for ways to improve the team, but there's nothing that we're close on right now," said Howson. "You're always talking to teams to see if there's a fit. But as you know, these trades usually take quite a while and we don't have anything that's close to leading down a path where there's going to be a trade completed.

"I think the most likely scenario is that we're going to watch this team for the next two months until the trade deadline and then act accordingly."

Odds are they'll be sellers March 3 unless there's a dramatic turnaround.

"The first 20 games, our record was 12-6-3," said Howson. "This has been a rather dramatic fall. I don't think any of us saw it coming. It's a huge setback for our team and we have to start to right the ship now."

Or else Hitchcock be in trouble, and perhaps even Howson. Let's hope that's not the case. I think Howson is a bright, young GM, and this team has good building blocks. Hitchcock didn't get stupid overnight. It's largely because of him that the team made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season. And let's face it, that team overachieved.

This is a result-oriented business, and the Columbus market has put up with losing for way too long. Interesting times ahead in Ohio, my friends.

Booth update
When we last checked in with the Florida Panthers, there was tentative hope star David Booth might be back sometime in January. However, at this point, there is no firm return date other than the club saying it still believes he'll play again this season. Booth has been dealing with post-concussion symptoms after taking a big hit from Philly's Mike Richards on Oct. 24.

"He's making progress," Panthers GM Randy Sexton told in an e-mail Monday. "He is progressing and we fully expect he'll be back. We're unable to put a definite return date yet due to the nature of the injury."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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