After an exclusive opportunity for season ticket holders to watch the team's pre-game skate before tonight's matchup vs. Winnipeg, the Blue Jackets hosted a Q&A with TV voice Jeff Rimmer, a brief visit from Winnipeg play by play voice Dennis Beyak, and GM Scott Howson. As a disclaimer: I attended today as a season ticket holder. I did not attend with my press credentials, and though I did try to ask a question at the Q&A, they ran out of time before I could speak up. This is 100% the responses of fans and my thoughts on what I saw as a member of the crowd, nothing more, nothing less.
I will tell you this up front: The fans were not there to listen to Dennis Beyak.
Beyak and Rimmer spent a bit of time discussing the return of hockey to Winnipeg, Beyak's history both as a broadcaster and as a member of the management team back in the WHL, his history in Toronto, and some of his thoughts about Jets head coach Claude Noel, but when asked for questions for Dennis, the crowd was still. Sensing the need to move on, Beyak bowed out gracefully and welcomed the Columbus general manager to the stage, and the first thought on seeing him was that the Columbus GM looked awful.
If Scott Howson has gotten a solid night's sleep in the past week it doesn't show on his face, but I will give the man full marks for courage and integrity. After taking a minute to talk about the news of Mark Dekanich's new injury (and that Dex will be staying in Springfield until he is confirmed as 100% healthy and ready to go), he gave the room the welcome news that Jeff Carter will be returning to the lineup tonight, and that Curtis Sanford was placed on retroactive IR to October 17th in order to open up a roster spot. (Sanford was also described as "almost ready to play", which could mean that once he is ready to go, Allen York might be on his way back to Massachusetts.)
From there, the floor was opened to questions, and Howson answered every one he faced. He did not ask for pre-screening, he did not mince words, and he did not flinch or beg off when a few questions (or reactions) were shouted at him from the floor rather than waiting for a microphone. He knew he was looking at a tough room, and he did not hesitate.
Unsurprisingly, the Kris Russell trade was one of the first subjects discussed after the injury updates, which Howson admitted was not an easy trade to make, and that his conversation with Kris Russell was "difficult", and that the trade itself ended up being more complicated than expected. Part of the reason for the delayed trade call (and why Howson could not officially confirm the deal until the following morning) was the sale of the St. Louis Blues. The Blues required approval for the finalized deal not only from the current ownership group but from the lenders handling the sale of the team while in transition. That delay lasted until the morning and complicated everything.
Howson also stated that the leak of the trade absolutely did not come from the Blue Jackets - they had specifically been told by the NHL not to discuss the details of trade or to let the player involved know his destination until the official trade call could be made, though he was able to tell Russell that evening that he would be traded.
Howson repeated that the deal was a tough decision and more about size on the blue line than anything else, and that they hoped Nikitin would help fill the void left by Radek Martinek's loss.
Howson was also blunt that he had no excuses for the team's poor start, but did say it was not something to blame on suspensions, officiating, or any external factor. "I know we can't change the past - no one thought this would happen to this group. But we are responsible for it. No one else except me, the coaches, and the players, and we are going to try to fix it."
Questions about the team's front office came right from the bat, with questions about why the team did not have more hockey minds, especially when there had been opportunities to bring them in to help put more knowledge in the room. Howson agreed that the team needed more senior experienced people in the advisory role, and that they were "moving down that path". Reading between the lines it sounds like the team had talked to several candidates, and it seems likely that we'll hear more about this soon.
The team's emotional fragility was also a question, one that Howson said that he and the coaching staff worked on daily with the team, but Howson was honest that Steve Mason's goaltending has been a struggle this season.
"The Philadelphia game was a complete debacle and that was everyone, but the Toronto game was pretty much Steve. He didn't get the big saves when we needed it, and that deflated the team. The other night (against Chicago), he made some good saves early when the team was struggling around him, but then he let in another bad goal and the team deflated again....we've got to stop that feeling and go forward. When you go into a period down 2-1, it's still a hockey game and we need to do what it takes to win."
When asked about why the team didn't do more to provide a backup for Mason, Howson was frank that he thought they had addressed the situation with Dekanich, but clearly that had not worked, and he was responsible for that, and that Howson planned to be increasingly active on finding a deal to improve the goaltending "over the next little while" to help the team win games. One can't help but wonder if he has one eye on tonight's game, and one eye on the GM meetings on Tuesday in Toronto.
Interestingly, the question would come back around near the end of the Q&A and Howson was asked if he thought about acquiring a more veteran presence such as Evgeni Nabokov, and the GM simply responded "Every minute", but once the laughter died down he also said that he had yet to give up on Mason. "I believe he's going to be a good goalie in the NHL - it just has taken longer than we thought."
On the other hand, Howson was also frank that goaltending was not the sole problem on this team: "If we keep playing like we have the last 3-4 games, it doesn't matter if it's Steve Mason, Roberto Luongo, Corey Schneider, or Pekka Rinne. You just can't give up those kind of chances and expect to win." Getting the team's game cleaned up appears to be as much or more important to Howson than anything in net.
The next set of questions focused on leadership - particularly the captaincy of Rick Nash, and Howson did not hesitate to restate his faith in the Capain, saying he'd never considered taking away the captaincy, and that Nash had made as much of a commitment to the franchise as they had made to him. "Rick takes a lot of unfair criticism. People think he doesn't care, but he beats himself up for every loss and tries to find a solution. He's going to help lead us out of this."
On a related subject, Howson was asked about the coaching staff, and if he had considered a coaching change, and his answer was an immediate "We are not." When asked why, with the oft repeated stat of 5 wins in 36 regular season games shouted at him from the crowd, as well as sharply delivered questions about the team being unmotivated and out of shape, Howson first addressed the team's conditioning: "I get reports every day and I can tell you they are not out of shape, and that our problems have not been fading away in the third period the way we had in the past. It's more problems in the first period or first few minutes, and yes, that is coaching. We believe that Scott Arniel is a good coach and needs a chance to work through this. The way Mr. Mac and J.P. McConnell run their businesses, you hire the best people and you give them a chance. I don't make excuses, but the coach needs to have some of the players we acquired in the lineup before we make a final judgement." On the other hand, he also admitted that both he and Arniel only have so much time to turn things around, or they could find themselves out of their jobs as well. "That's professional sports."
He also admitted that the team has backed off and tried to protect leads too often rather than getting aggressive in games vs. Colorado and Anaheim, and that was a coaching decision that he had discussed with Arniel. Despite the faith Howson expressed, his body language seemed somewhat strained on the subject of his coach - I really wonder if he is as unsatisfied with some of the recent coaching decisions as the fans.
He was also asked about the issue of the team's practice habits and recent comments by both Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu about needing to change how the team handles itself in practice and prior to games. "We've spoken to the coaches and players a lot about practice habits, and I tend to agree that we need to practice harder. Not longer, but harder when on the ice." Howson was also glowing in his assessment of Prospal - "Just a special guy, and I take a lot of what he says to heart. The coaches are responsible for getting them to practice harder, but I hope that we will see some change."
When asked about Ken Hitchcock, Howson was firm that his return to the bench had never been an option. "That ship had sailed, and even if there might have been a brief "bump", I believe it truly would have been a step backwards."
Interestingly, when asked if the team "got anything" from the hiring, Howson said that he had wished the team could have received some compensation - or that any team allowing a head coach or general manager to be hired away could receive some benefit, but that was not the situation in the NHL. He also said that while it did hurt a little to see the veteran coach go to a divisional opponent, the Jackets had far more problems internally than anything going on in St. Louis. "I would love St. Louis would become a problem - it would mean we're competing well - but we're not there right now."
The topic of realignment came up, and Howson discussed the two options on the table. "The initial thought was that, Winnipeg moves to the Western conference and one team between Detroit, Nashville, and us moves East. If that takes place, we are lobbying very hard to be that team. The other option is 4 divisions with 8 or 7 teams in each division / conference and creates a home and home with every team, which is what is really important to us. That takes away one California trip and a Western Canadian trip, and if we get that, which we are striving for and we are going to vote for, it's going to depend on a few other things. The Phoenix issue is a confusing situation, and even if we stayed in a division with Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis and Minnesota but eliminated that travel, we'd consider it good for us. We would prefer to go to the East, and if one team goes we are lobbying to go East, but we'd be happy with that."
The use of Ryan Johansen also brought an interesting answer: "Some nights he'll play 6 minutes. Some nights he'll play 16 minutes. Some nights doesn't play at all. The coaches have a reason for it - I'd like him to play every night to see him grow, but the nights where he doesn't play we can work on his strength, his skills, and handle him properly so he has the chance to grow." Howson also repeated the switch to wing was a matter of helping to slow the game down and give Johansen a chance to adjust to the NHL, but the long term plan is returning him to the middle. When asked how much control he has over Johansen's playing time and the lineups for each game, Howson joked that at worst case he could start making trades or demoting players, but the more serious answer was he and Arniel discuss lineups each day, but at the end it's Arniel's decision.
Trades, unsurprisingly, were also a theme. Howson repeated that the team is attempting to make trades, and will continue to look at trades. The pickup of Mark Letestu was a move that added depth and making the team better - Howson has been convinced that centers and defensemen are one of, if not the, most valuable commodities at trade deadline time. Far better to add a player now than wait for the price to go up. He also repeated that the Letestu deal was not meant to set up another trade, but admitted that if they found a deal that made the team better but required moving a center, they now had that freedom.
Another tidbit during that conversation was that the team had apparently looking at acquiring Marty Reasoner last season when attempting to push for the playoffs, but that his price at the deadline went up to a 2nd round pick, which Howson felt was too high for a fourth line pivot.
Howson made no excuses when the state of the team was brought up again and again, but repeated that the team does care, and that they know the situation. Howson repeatedly brought up his frustration at the first 30 minutes of the game against Chicago when he saw the team looking motivated and in excellent spirits after days of practice and then falling down flat once they hit the ice for real.
When called to answer about why the Jackets did not resign Jan Hejda, Howson was equally frank. Admitting he is still a fan of how Hejda plays, and that the team misses his presence, Howson said that the team was firm on a three year deal, and Hejda was seeking four, and that the team was offering "a little under three million a year" right up to the morning of July 1st compared to the $3.25 he secured from Colorado. At the time, Howson felt it was worth spending the money instead on Wisniewski, Tyutin, and Methot, but was candid that he misjudged the team's defense in the offseason. "I did what I thought was right and in the best interest of the team, but some of those decisions have not worked out and I need to fix them. I thought maybe David Savard would be more ready than he was - John Moore is here now - I hoped that with Martinek we'd get 60-65 games from him and perhaps give a player a chance to step in for a few games, and that obviously wasn't the case."
The last few games aside, Howson thought the start of the season and the attempt for up-tempo hockey was a start at creating an identity for the team, but they struggled, and that they've been exposed, particularly recently. They needed to capitalize on their opportunities, particularly when heavily outshooting opponents like Dallas, Nashville, and Buffalo. Their skill needed to show on the ice, and it did not. "Players like Ryan Johansen and Mark Letestu improve our skill level. Jeff Carter improves our skill level. I can't explain why Rick (Nash) only has 4 goals so far. We can't give a goaltender 40 saves and not score on him, and we need to keep pounding the puck at the net until it starts going in."
The final thoughts came back to a theme Howson hit on again and again: Reasons for hope.
"All I can offer to the fans is my 100% effort in trying to deal with this every day, and the coaches and players are offering the same thing. We've got to give hope to the players, who have lost some in this situation, and sell hope to the fans to get this done. But at the same time, words are cheap, and I can't offer anything other than to keep trying to make this better. Tonight is another opportunity to get this straight."
I thank Howson for his honesty and his willingness to face the fans. He knows people are frustrated, and it's equally clear that he feels the responsibility of his position. It remains to be seen if the future of the team will see him vindicated, or if the admitted mistakes will end up as his undoing.