By 5of7 (Antoine Vermette) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Over the last seven months, no general manager has been flogged more than Scott Howson of the Columbus Blue Jackets. His team came into last season with some promise only to finish dead last in points and a skeleton of what they were a year ago. Some of the things that went wrong for the Blue Jackets were beyond Howson’s control but he reacted in the worst way possible and Columbus is going to pay the price for it for years to come. The Blue Jackets and Howson’s reputation might be in shambles but something that gets overlooked is that Howson did a decent job in at least trying to build a contending team in Columbus.
When Howson took over as the GM in Columbus in the summer of 2007, he inherited a mess left behind by Doug Maclean. The best he could do was try to rebuild through the draft, make safe gambles in free agency and make do with the hand he was dealt. The Jackets had an emerging star in Rick Nash when he took over and some decent pieces to build around such as Derick Brassard but the cupboard was bare for the most part. How did Howson’s rebuild go? If you look at his drafting, trading and free agency moves in the first couple of years, there aren’t a lot of glaringly bad mistakes.
Columbus has had a lot of bad luck with early draft choices and that somewhat continued under Howson. They acquired themselves a very good player in Jakub Voracek in the first round of the 2007 draft but he also took a gamble in the fourth round by giving up three fifth round picks to draft Maksim Mayorov, a move that didn’t appear to be that big of a risk at the time. The selection of Nikita Filatov in the first round the following year didn’t work out for him either and we’ll have to see what kind of players John Moore and David Savard but drafting definitely wasn’t one of Howson’s strong points during this part of his tenure. Trading and free agency is a different story, though.
Howson sold off some of the team’s assets like Adam Foote, Sergei Fedorov and Jody Shelley in the Spring of 2008 and was able to turn one of the picks he acquired in the Foote trade into RJ Umberger, who has been a key part of the team since then. He also signed Umberger to a reasonable four-year contract after making the trade. In addition to that, Howson made use of some of the remains left behind by Maclean by dealing Gilbert Brule for Raffi Torres and sending Nikolai Zherdev to the Rangers for Fedor Tyutin, a very solid top-four defenseman. Howson continued to bolster the team through free agency by acquiring Kristian Huselius, Michael Peca, Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore, the latter being the one major misfire of the bunch.
All in all, Howson did a fine job at setting up Columbus to be a good team and they made the playoffs in 2008-09. A career season from Rick Nash and a Calder Trophy winning performance by goaltender Steve Mason played a large role in their success but the moves Howson made also set the Jackets up to be a contending team. The one big mistake he made was giving Pascal Leclaire a three-year, $11.4 mil. contract but Mason’s emergence allowed him to trade him to Ottawa in exchange for Antoine Vermette, who has turned into a good possession center the last few seasons. Unfortunately for the Jackets, everything started to crumble after their only playoff appearance.
The Jackets came into the 2009-10 season with high hopes and Howson made a couple of good moves to make sure that his team could repeat what they did the previous season. One of which was signing Sami Pahlsson to a three-year deal, which gave them a shutdown center to help shelter the likes of Filatov, Voracek and Brassard. Howson also signed Mathieu Garon to back-up and provide insurance for Mason, who would enter the year as the starter.
This plan didn’t look bad at the time because Mason had just won the Calder and many thought Filatov would spend most of the year in Columbus but things would soon take a turn for the worst. Filatov played a total of 13 games with the Blue Jackets and Mason had a horrific fall from grace. Howson would respond to the Jackets misfortunes by firing Ken Hitchcock as head coach. A GM obviously has to make some sort of response when his team is going through a terrible season but placing the blame on Hitchcock instead of the goaltending was clearly the wrong move here.
Howson’s trust in Steve Mason would play a major role in the Jackets demise as he decided to reward Mason with a two year contract, one year before his ELC expired, after his terrible sophomore campaign. The Jackets would enter the next season with roughly the same roster and would finish with only two points more than they had the previous year. Keep in mind that this is with Brassard, Vermette and Umberger having very good seasons.
Then we move to the summer of 2011 when Howson decided to make a strong push for the Jackets to get back to the playoffs. He made a couple of risky bets by selling most of the future for Jeff Carter (Voracek and two picks that ended up being Sean Couturier and Nick Collins), signing James Wisniewski to a six-year contract and both Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek to one-year deals respectively. He also locked up RJ Umberger and Fedor Tyutin long-term to solidify the Jackets older corps along with Nash.
As you can see, Howson did a fine job at building up his roster to be at least somewhat competitive…except he did not address the goaltending issue. The first year of Mason’s new contract extension kicked in that year and Howson elected to roll with him and sign Curtis Sanford and Mark Dekanich to back him up. One of which is a career AHL-er and the other had little to no NHL experience. Unsurprisingly, Mason had another bad year and to make things worse, both Carter and Wisniewski spent most of the first half of the year on the shelf and the Jackets ended up winning only six games in the first two months of the season. The funny thing is that even when the goings were tough, Howson made a couple of good trades by acquiring Mark Letestu and the extremely underrated Nikita Nikitin for next to nothing. Things would then unravel once the calendar turned 2012.
With the Jackets now destined for a lottery pick, many people expected the Jackets to sell at the trade deadline as that is the cliché that most teams fall into around that time of the year. However, the Jackets didn’t have that many tradable players on expiring contracts so it limited what they could and could not do. That changed when Jeff Carter asked to be traded and he eventually was moved and Howson may have gotten the worst return possible in Jack Johnson and a first round pick. Carter was having a down year so Howson may have had to sell low on him but Johnson is barely a top-four defender and is saddled with a terrible seven-year contract worth over $4 mil. per year. The fire sale would continue as Howson then traded Vermette and Pahlsson away for no future assets aside from mid/late-round draft picks and the Jackets once solid corps of center was all but dismantled.
If things weren’t bad enough, the Jackets star player Rick Nash also asked to be traded and Howson eventually granted his wish a few days ago by sending Nash to the Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov , Tim Erixon and a first round pick. The return is fair if you compare it with Nash’s value but the Jackets would not even be in this situation if it wasn’t for Howson panicking at the trade deadline and having way too much confidence in Steve Mason.
Howson is seen as a fool among the masses now but I can only imagine what would happen if the Jackets had gotten above average goaltending from Mason the last two seasons or if Howson had signed a quality 1 a/b starter for insurance instead of Dekanich and Sanford. It is also interesting to think about what the Jackets season may have looked like with Wisniewski and Carter in the lineup full-time because if their underlying numbers are any indication, they wouldn’t be as nearly as bad as they were this season.
The most impressive thing here is how quickly Howson decided to hit the panic button and force the Jackets into yet another rebuilding phase. It took him a couple years to assemble a solid foundation out of what MacLean left behind and it was all blown to bits in a matter of months. Now he has to start all over again and one would hope for Columbus’ sake that they can try to put something together out of what they have now.