As the Jackets practice following a 9-2 loss and a 2-11-1 start, there is an air of sick anticipation among the fanbase.
It's the moment between getting rear-ended and getting out of the car to look at the damage. It's that second between dropping a hammer on your bare foot and looking down at your abused toes. It's looking down at a toilet bowl through a wave of nausea and knowing what's coming next.
Something painful has happened. There will be a reaction. But you don't actually know what it will be until you can look at the damage - or worse, you know something worse is coming, but you can't do anything to stop it.
It hurts even more because, finally, we seemed to be on the right path. The offseason had been exciting. NHL pundits thought this team had made real improvements. There seemed to be a path to go forward. Instead, we are deep into the labyrinth, and we've run out of string.
It seems like there are two major paths, and some sub-branches within them. I'll try to break them out and lay out options.
Path 1: Wipe It Clean
In this scenario, John P. McConnell looks upon his domain, and finds it wanting. It is time for a clear-cut. In this situation, expect to see team president Mike Priest, GM Scott Howson, and head coach Scott Arniel removed.
Option 1A: Triage
In the first, and perhaps most likely scenario, J.P. Mac would look to perform a complete organizational rebuild in the offseason, and perform an organized search over the late season / early offseason. Interim personell would be brought in to handle the short term, but of the list I can see being populated, only one might have a long term chance at success.
Team President: Ken Hitchcock
GM: Chris MacFarland
Head Coach: Todd Richards
Of this group, Hitch would probably be the most likely to survive the offseason, and would provide exactly what many pundits and fans have called for - a legitimate hockey mind with ultimate responsibility over the team, rather than a businessman trying to become a hockey mind on the fly. (That said, Mike Priest will get a bit of a bum rap here - he has accountability for the team, but doesn't really have much ability to make them magically play better - and he was equally at the helm for major growth of the team's business partnerships, the arena lease getting fixed in the near future, and some major outreach efforts to the fanbase. Give credit where due.)
MacFarland and Richards are simply there to stop the bleeding. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Richards could have some success as head coach, but I would be justifiably hesitant to hand the permanent keys to him. After all, he was part of the coaching staff during the entire meltdown. What part did he play? How did he fail to turn it around? What's to stop another one under his watch? MacFarland has been here through almost the entire history of the organization. I wouldn't call that a screaming hot resume right now. If the team is serious about looking at someone like Paul Fenton or Ron Hextall, MacFarland's job is to keep the seat warm so that they can get permission to talk to them without having to give up midseason compensation.
I would not expect major player moves during the season, but I would expect Kristian Huselius, Samuel Pahlsson, Vinny Prospal, and possibly "value" AHL / bottom six players like Byers, Drazenovic, Giroux, Bass, Boll, Dorsett, and Sanford to be on the block at the trade deadline.
Once a new permanent GM was put into place, I would also expect serious looks at moving Steve Mason, and possibly Antoine Vermette or Derick Brassard. I think the possibility of trading Rick Nash or Fedor Tyutin is also there, but contracts could be an issue. That said, when the franchise leadership group has consistently imploded three times in five years, it's time to clean house there, too.
Option 1B: Meet The New Boss(es)
In this option, we still see a cleanout of the front office, but also an attempt at a rolling rebuild. The persons brought in would not have interim tags, and would be given a mandate to make whatever changes necessary to improve the team, expecting that the playoffs are gone, but demanding an improvement in the on-ice product in the shortest time possible.
Team President: Pierre McGuire
GM: Rick Dudley
Head Coach: ??
No, I haven't been drinking. Really. McGuire is mostly known for his role working on TSN, Versus, and NBC as a hockey commentator and analyst, but he's also been a Stanley Cup winning assistant coach and pro scout. He has an insane level of connections around the NHL, extensive knowledge of the game at every level, and has been given serious consideration for front office positions by several teams in the last few years, including the Lightning and Wild.
Putting him in the President's spot, if he was willing to take it, is another move that puts a hockey savvy professional at the front of the organization. He's looking to make an impact to show he can be a legitimate contributor, and more than aware of the organization's flaws both private and public, while avoiding the up-front risks of putting a totally untested GM into a nasty situation.
Rick Dudley is a man the team should have been pursuing this offseason, and unfortunately failed to move quickly enough. Currently serving with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dudley had been given a mission to turn the Atlanta Thrashers around, and evidence from the last two seasons indicates he was making a legitimate case for success before his ownership cut his legs out from under him and sold the team to True North, setting up his exit in the process.
Dudley understand what the challenges are to operate in an expansion market, and one that has been starved for playoff success. He has some knowledge of Ohio as a hockey market thanks to his time in Cincinnati as player in the WHA. He understands operating under the gun, and he's not afraid to make moves to rebuild the character of an organization. His trade for Andrew Ladd is one that I really pay attention to - he went after one of the biggest character guys on the Hawks Stanley Cup team, and it's not a coincidence that he was named captain of the Thrashers after arriving in the ATL (and remained in that position in Winnipeg).
Dudley would also have the mandate to assess the locker room and make any changes he feels neccessary. I would not be surprised at all to see major shakeups, and a lot of reliance on younger talent from Springfield for the rest of this season - so much so that I could even see a scenario where Rob Riley is given an interim tag for Columbus, and a full coaching search is conducted in the summer.
I leave the head coach as a question mark in this situation because there's a limited pool of "available" candidates who could be plucked out of the air today, and none really seem like a great fit. I would love to see someone like Kirk Muller, or perhaps looking an experienced head coach like Michel Therrien, but if you are putting in a new permanent GM, you have to let him select "his guy". Re-treading for the remainder of the season might work, but after that it's going to need to be someone who fits his philosophy, and you won't find that in the 72-96 hour window that this kind of turnover usually requires inside of the schedule of an NHL season.
As for the players, deep changes will be made, and I would expect Dudley to trade, and trade aggressively. Prospects will be given auditions and I suspect we would feel like this team was incredibly different in a very short period of time, with a good chance that Dudley takes the "country club" perpetrators and ejects them in detail, regardless of who they might be, and uses the return to stockpile a combination of NHL talent and picks in the draft.
Path 2: Keep Baby, Discard Bathwater
If, especially following last summer's extensive review, it's possible that J.P. Mac finds there is still good among the pain and the sorrow, he might chose to make a selective pruning, hoping that small but important changes can make a larger impact.
This would likely be gradual, with careful adjustments and a lack of knee-jerk moves. In other words...probably exactly what we need.
Option 2A: Bandage
GM: Scott Howson
Interim Head Coach: Todd Richards
Unfortunately, someone is likely to pay for a 2-11-1 start, and the most likely names on that list are Scott Arniel and Mike Priest. Howson has, on paper, a pretty good argument that he did his job, and the products of that work have either been misused, damaged, or prevented from playing, all situations out of his control. (Of course, he also gave some VERY big extensions over the last two years to Tyutin, Vermette, and Umberger, and only one of those guys has been really showing up over the last week.)
Richards will be given a chance to see what he can do, but I would expect a full coaching search later in the summer - and don't be surprised if you see names float around like Craig Ramsay or Glen Hanlon - coaches with experience in expansion markets and/or teams struggling to draw at the box office and in need of extensive motivation. (Anyone remember the Capitals in first three seasons of the Ovechkin era? The Verizon center was anything BUT rocking the red. For that matter, neither were the Capitals...)
I'm not in the "everything is Steve Mason's fault" camp, but I don't see how the team goes forward with him as a starter right now. A trade to acquire help, or possibly a stopgap measure like a 1 year deal for Marty Turco and then exploiting a busy free agent market seems likely. (Note: I don't want Marty Turco, but I will admit that he's out there and looking for work.) As for Mason, send him down to Springfield unless he moves as part of a deal. It's time to bow to conventional wisdom and let him get his confidence back. Let him play another year or two in the minors and then see what we have.
If trading, as much as people talk about Corey Schneider (and I'd love to see him here, too), expect to see a target like Al Montoya, Scott Clemmensen, Josh Harding, or Johnathan Bernier - all seasoned backups with strong recent performances and demonstrated starting ability. Bernier is especially interesting, and LA has a deep enough pool of goalie talent that I think he could be acquired for the right price.
Similarly, a few players could move, but I'd expect relatively small deals. Moving Kris Russell, if he's truly in the doghouse, seems possible. Sammy Pahlsson is likely to be in demand.
There's one change, though, from some of the earlier scenarios: Don't move Vinny Prospal unless he asks to be moved.
It's clear from his comments earlier this year and his general attitude that Prospal wants to win, sees the tools to win here, and is willing to poke and prod the team until they start playing the same way. If he's willing, I'd actually give him a short (1 year?) extension, just to cement that his voice will stay in the locker room and then push the team accordingly to follow that example.
In the offseason, hang on to the first round pick (especially if, as seems likely, it's the 1st or 2nd overall) and ruthlessly use the rest to trade, swap, and steal to get the exposed issues fixed.
Option 2B: I Meant What I Said.
Team President: Mike Priest
GM: Scott Howson
Head Coach: Scott Arniel
Back when Scott Arniel was hired, Scott Howson said that it would be players, not the coach, who would leave if the team continued to struggle.
Well, it's time to back that up.
Scott Howson made his job a bit harder by trying to solidify what now has been exposed as a flawed core, but the fact that players like Richards, Carter, and Heatley could all be moved says there's no such thing as an "untradeable" deal - and I have no doubt there are teams would would be very interested in the right players.
Mark Dekanich, Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski are safe. Ryan Johansen is safe. Cam Atkinson is safe. Other than that? Open season. Expect major personnel changes and to finish the year as the 2011-2012 Columbus Falcons, but a major revamp through trades and free agency boosted by the addition of a lottery pick and making an aggressive pursuit of a netminder like Montoya or Harding to serve as a tandem with Dex.
All That Being Said...
No matter which direction the team moves (and it's impossible to truly predict right now), the playoffs are incredibly unlikely. It hurts me to write it, it hurts you to read it, but it's true.
I'd even say that the next season is just as likely to be a bumpy road as the new team (and/or new management and/or new coach) get their feet under them and find their stride.
If the Jackets move to the Eastern conference, the road may get a little easier. If they get realigned into a different division, perhaps the schedule will be kinder. But I wouldn't count on anything except a lot of empty seats at Nationwide.
The problem with building up high expectations and then issuing a major disappointment again and again is that the people around you stop listening. They don't believe you until proven otherwise, and even when demonstrated, they're going to want consistent proof before they're willing to extend their trust again.
The Blue Jackets and their fans have a long hard road in front of them. Unfortunately, until we know how the team and their ownership will begin to respond, it hasn't truly started.