NHL NEWS: Blue Jackets fire GM Scott Howson

Courtesy of NHL.com, it has been announced that the Columbus Blue Jackets have fired General Manager Scott Howson.  The announcement doesn’t really come as a surprise, although more than a few people thought it might happen last summer.  His record as GM isn’t exactly glowing…

Howson came to the Blue Jackets in 2007 from the Edmonton Oilers, where he had served a relatively successful 5 year period as Assistant GM to Kevin Lowe.  Hopes were high as Columbus had failed to make the playoffs even once since joining the league in 2000, and Howson was a smart man coming from a team that was one season removed from making the Stanley Cup Finals.  Not only had Columbus not made the playoffs, but they were an absolutely awful team, only once managing to finish higher than 4th in their division.  Usually this would result in high draft picks which would result in quality young talent coming through.  For the Columbus Blue Jackets, this resulted in high draft picks which were either squandered on players who would never develop into what they were projected to be.

Here is a list of their 1st round picks up to 2006:

  • 2000 – 4th overall – Rusty Klesla – a good, but not great defenceman.  He was one of the team’s top players for years, but that’s saying more about Columbus than it is about Klesla.  Now playing in Phoenix.
  • 2001 – 8th overall – Pascal Leclaire – a talented goalie, and for a time it looked like he could be that franchise goalie every team wants.  But injuries and inconsistency robbed him of any chance of reaching that potential.  He was traded to Ottawa in 2009, but hip injuries that required surgery forced him to retire in 2011.
  • 20021st overall – Rick Nash – a bona fide top line winger in the NHL, Nash had some outstanding goal-scoring seasons as a Jacket and served as their captain for many years.  Never had the supporting cast around him to help out, and it became clear Nash wasn’t the type of player you build around but rather an excellent supporting player.  He was traded to the Rangers last year after requesting to be moved, showing he’d finally had enough of all the losing.
  • 2003 – 4th overall – Nikolay Zherdev – talented winger oozed potential, but struggled with consistency.  Had some good seasons and some poor seasons in Columbus.  Traded to the Rangers in 2008, has since bounced between Russia, back to the NHL (Flyers) and back to Russia again.
  • 2004 – 8th overall – Alexendre Picard – this is where it got really bad. Picard was a really good, but not outstanding junior talent.  It’s a bit of a mystery why they drafted him, as they could have had Ladislav Smid, Drew Stafford, Devan Dubnyk, Travis Zajac etc., who were all available at that point.  In the 9 years since he was drafted, he’s played 67 NHL games, scoring 2 assists.  He is now playing in Switzerland.
  • 2005 – 6th overall – Gilbert Brule – this one is particularly galling.  Despite being a bit undersized, Brule was a highly touted played coming out of the WHL, where he was absolutely dominant.  He was highly skilled, a great skater, had a booming shot, and could hit like a truck.  At the time, the Blue Jackets were probably thrilled to have him fall to them at 6th overall.  However, it is widely believed that they rushed him to the NHL too soon, ruining his confidence, stunting his development, and generally ruining his chance at a quality NHL career.  Numerous injuries didn’t help either.  Brule played 146 games for Columbus, scoring 12 goals and 32 points, before being traded to Edmonton in 2008.  He looked to be back on track for a while in Edmonton, managing a 17 goal season one year, but then fell off a cliff the next year when injuries hit, and he was claimed by Phoenix on re-entry waivers in 2012.  He played in Switzerland at the start of this season, but left the team and is now not playing organised hockey, as far as is known.
  • 2006 – 6th overall – Derick Brassard – the first of these players that is actually still on the team, Brassard was drafted as a skilled center out of the QMJHL.  He turned pro in 2007, had an outstanding season in the AHL though was underwhelming in 17 games with Columbus.  The next season he had 31 games in the NHL and was terrific for the team, putting up 25 points in just 31 games before injuries ended his season.  Hopes were sky high for the player, but since then he has cooled right off and is considered a consistent 35-50 point player.  That’s no bad thing, but it’s not quite what the team thought he’d be.  He’s still young enough though to improve considerably.

So as you can see, not good.  Howson took over roughly a week before the 2007 draft, and here is his list of 1st round draft picks – it is likely he didn’t have a lot of input into who they drafted in 2007, but all the same that was under his watch so will be listed here:

  • 2007 – 7th overall – Jakub Voracek – a big, talented Czech winger, Voracek was actually a good pick by the team.  He had three good, solid seasons with the team, scoring 39 goals and 134 points in 241 games, before being traded to Philadelphia in 2011 in the ultimately disastrous Jeff Carter deal.
  • 2008 – 6th overall – Nikita Filatov  – yet another skilful winger, Filatov was a highly touted Russian, but when he came over he really didn’t seem to take well to the North American style of play.  He also reportedly clashed with then-Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, and spent much time in the minors as well as being loaned back to his team in Russia.  Finally he was traded to Ottawa in 2011, where he played 9 forgettable games and is now back in Russia, where he still isn’t very good.
  • 2009 – 21st overall – John Moore – the first ever draft pick by Columbus not to be in the top 10, Moore was actually considered a pretty good pick by the team.  A big, impressive 2-way defenceman in junior, he had a solid first pro season in the AHL, and is now 69 games into his NHL career.  He’s still only 22, and has a long way to go in his development, and could turn into a good top 4 NHL defender.
  • 2010 – 4th overall – Ryan Johansen – a big, skilled playmaking center was exactly what the Blue Jackets had been looking for for years, and finally one fell into their laps at the 2010 draft.  Johansen is an outstanding prospect, with true top-line potential.  However, there is a worry that his development is going well in Columbus (Gilbert Brule syndrome).  He made the NHL a year after being drafted, but played sparingly in a 4th line rule, putting up just 21 points in 67 games.  He had a good run in the AHL during the lockout, putting up 30 points in 36 games, but currently only has 2 assists in 10 games in the NHL so far this year.  This kid could go either way really.  He’s still only 20 years old, so a long way to go.
  • 2012 – 2nd overall – Ryan Murray – Murray was a very highly touted defender prior to the 2012 draft, receiving rave reviews for his defensive capabilities and offensive potential at such a young age, as well as his character, maturity and leadership.  He was in the conversation for 1st overall, but the Oilers – despite their organisational need for defenceman – took the Russian sniper Nail Yakupov, leaving a choice of Murray, Yakupov’s talented Russian-American team-mate and big center Alex Galchenyuk, and big Russian center Mikhail Grigorenko.  Given Columbus’ bad experiences with Russian draftees (see Filatov and Zherdev), it was pretty obvious they weren’t going to take Grigorenko or Galchenyuk (despite Alex being brought up in the US and considering himself a US citizen).  They went with Murray, whom despite being highly touted did come with question marks, the primary one being is his offensive potential high enough to warrant being picked that high.  Nevertheless the Blue Jackets selected him.  Murray was having an outstanding season in the WHL this year before a shoulder injury knocked him out for the entire season, which has to be disturbing for the team.  A season lost to injury at this stage of Murray’s development could be devastating in the long-term.  We wait and see.

Drafting is only one part of the equation of course, although in my opinion if you draft poorly – especially in the 1st round – then you will struggle to build a quality team.

Howson didn’t have much impact on the team in his first season, as they still finished 4th in their division, although it was clear that Howson was going to change a few things.  He traded captain Adam Foote to Colorado for draft picks, signalling a rebuild of sorts, with Rick Nash being named Captain.  He also traded Sergei Federov, Curtis Glencross, Jody Shelley, Philippe Dupuis, Darcy Campbell and Geoff Platt in return for Aaron Rome, Clay Wilson, Mark Rycroft, Dick Tarnstrom, Ted Ruth and draft picks.  He also signed free agents Sheldon Brookbank, Jiri Novotny, Jan Hejda, Derek MacKenzie, Kris Beech, Mike Peca, Anders Eriksson and Aaron Johnson.  None of the players acquired, with the exception of Johnson and Hejda, would have any prolonged impact on the team.

The second season of his tenure was much more successful, with the team making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and the future was finally beginning to look bright.  Howson signed quality players Kristian Huselius and Mike Commodore, and traded for quality players RJ Umberger and Fedor Tyutin, as well as Antoine Vermette at the deadline.  Rookie goalie Steve Mason proved to be the real difference maker however, as he turned in a stellar season that propelled the Blue Jackets into the playoffs and earned him the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.  Head coach Ken Hitchcock was widely regarded as being a key cog in the reversal of fortunes.

However since then, despite the acquisitions of some useful players including Tyutin, Umberger, Adrian Aucoin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov, Matt Calvert, Derek Dorsett, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, Nick Foligno, Jack Johnson (I’m not a fan but others seem to be), Mark Letestu, Nikita Nikitin, Vinnie Prospal and James Wisniewski, the team has struggled mightily.  They have the foundations, to be fair, of not too bad a team, particularly on defence, but there are some major fixes that are required.  They need better goalies, full stop.  Mason has been flat out awful since that rookie season, and Bobrovsky is inconsistent, and they also need more bonafide scoring forwards.

I wish Howson well, but unfortunately his record as GM was quite obviously going to lead to this point.  Early reports have Jarmo Kekalainen, currently GM of Jokerit in Finland, as the likely replacement.  Kekalainen was an assistant to John Davidson in St Louis.  It should be noted that John Davidson, who was named team president after leaving the Blues last summer, is likely the driving force behind this change.  Davidson is the man most credited with turning around the fortunes of the St Louis franchise, and he is looking to do the same in Columbus.  This is a very interesting move, let’s see if it results in any other big changes.

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