Poor Contracts: Why it's Howson's Fault

As the Columbus Blue Jackets season continues to meander along with a slight "turnaround" from the abysmal start, some of the most interesting conversation has been brought on by Derick Brassard's agent. Allan Walsh's support of his client and apparent rejection of Scott Arniel has spurred more discussion of what fate the coaching staff should have.

However, at least one author has noted that blame for inaction should lie at the feet of Scott Howson. Andy Newman wrote a very insightful and essentially spot-on critique here on the Cannon, discussing how slowly the Jackets' management have reacted to poor results from the players. I also reach a similar conclusion when considering the here-and-now for the Jackets.

Yet I would submit that even more problems have come from Scott Howson than simply being slow in moving players. In fact, I think Howson has only managed to shoot himself in the foot on multiple occasions when considering roster flexibility and talent-tradability. Why is that?

His terrible contracts.

Scott Howson isn't always the source of as much Jacket-fan ire as the individual players and the coaches, but I think he should be. The way Scott Howson has dealt with signing contracts and contract extensions is laughable at best, and is sometimes mocked by the non-Columbus internet hockey community. That's a fairly damning way for a GM to be treated - but it may actually be justified. Let's examine Derick Brassard and Steve Mason for a moment before looking at a few more of the contracts Howson has offered.

Derick Brassard

Derick Brassard was signed to his current contract on September 4, 2009. It is the four-year, 3.2 million dollar cap-hit deal he's in right now (the last season of the contract is 2013-14). This contract was offered after only 48 NHL games played, and with the final full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That that is where the problem lies. 48 games is hardly enough time to learn anything about how a player will perform in the NHL - he hadn't even played for an entire regular season, and the team deemed him worthy of being paid like a second-line forward. The signing is made even more questionable when considering the outcome of Brassard's 2008-09 season - his shoulder injury.

Scott Howson not only chose to sign a mostly-unproven player to a fairly long-term deal, he also chose to do so before he played in any regular season games following a season-ending injury. The flawed logic in this decision is just painful and continues to hurt the Jackets today. Brassard has shown, at best, that post-injury he could be an occasional 2nd line performer (last season being his most productive full year). But that has been with great inconsistency and a sizable price tag relative to his level of play. Now that Brassard has regressed from his high-point of last season, the contract only looks worse.

Here, the cap hit is less the concern rather than the actual salary for this year and next. This year Brassard will be paid $3.3 million, and next year $3.7 million. That's a hard enough contract to swallow for a Jackets team that is suddenly near the cap. It also makes moving Brassard (if that is his eventual fate) significantly more difficult. How many teams want to pay a guy $3.7 million to maybe be a lower-tier second line forward?

Steve Mason

The second poor extension to examine is the one given to Steve Mason on September 20, 2010. This deal was a two year contract that kicked in at the start of the 2011-12 season (that is, this year) for a cap hit of $2.9 million. I think I've previously linked to the excellent article from exceptional goalie blog Brodeur is a Fraud, but I'll do it again anyway. Just following the extension, the author of that blog had the following notes on the Mason deal:

Steve Mason's career save percentage in the NHL, regular season and playoffs combined, is .907. That's a below average number in today's scoring environment. I will cut him some slack because he did break into the league at a very young age, and it is entirely possible that he will continue to develop into a goalie with significantly better numbers down the road. But that's why I think this season is pretty important in terms of pegging Mason. It's his third year in the NHL, he's 22, and by all accounts he worked hard on his game over the summer. If I was running the Blue Jackets, I'd tell Mason to prove to me that he deserves to get paid, rather than giving him a sweet deal coming off of a down season. Maybe Mason breaks out and it costs me an extra $500K per season to buy his remaining RFA years, but in the cap era I think it's better to avoid costly mistakes than to pay market value for guys who deserve it.

It's worth noting that those numbers and musings came in September 2010. Unfortunately for Blue Jackets fans, this prediction proved even more optimistic than reality. Not only did Mason fail to reach his rookie-season heights, he continued to play poorly. Yet again, he was below league average for save percentage, and didn't even manage a high number of shutouts to mask some of his worst outings. Once more, Howson acted before reasonable conclusions could be drawn. He signed Mason to an extension after one excellent season and one poor season - all while he still had a full year of Mason's entry-level contract to wait through before being forced into action.

Of course, we're now watching the extremely failed outcomes of that signing. Mason has regressed even further to a sub-backup save percentage over last season and the start of this year. And the ability to move Mason (much like Brassard) is extraordinarily difficult due to Howson's contract. This time, both the cap hit and the actual pay are extreme turn-offs for any other team. It's hard to imagine any NHL team wanting to keep a poor backup goalie on the payroll for $3.2 million next year.

Even Off Entry-Level

Of course, this sort of focus on Mason and Brassard makes it seem that Howson only offers bad contracts to players looking for extensions off their entry-level deals. Unfortunately, we are not so lucky. The obvious first poor contract is the one offered to Mike Commodore. Historically, Commodore hadn't been exceptional, but Howson chose to give the defenseman a five-year $3.75 million dollar deal. We all know where that ended - and the Jackets are still literally paying for the deal thanks to their buyout of the poor contract.

Another poor contract still on the roster is for Kristian Huselius. Huselius is by no means a poor player - he is certainly capable of offense and has been a useful contributor to the Jackets when healthy. But both health and actual level of scoring make his $4.75 million cap hit another painful one. Since joining Columbus, Huselius has never managed to reach the scoring heights he saw from the 2006-07 campaign in Calgary, and he has also never had a regular season with more than 74 games played.

Some may also question the contracts offered to Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski, and R.J. Umberger. All three are certainly valuable contributors and would find plenty of ice time on any team, but the high price tags offered (especially relative to other potential 2nd pairing defensemen or 2nd/3rd line forwards) makes the Blue Jackets roster that much more inflexible and makes the lack of cap space even more frustrating.

How to Change the Team?

Unfortunately, these contracts will continue to be a problem for the Blue Jackets for the next few years. Just a quick look at CapGeek reveals that for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, respectively, the Jackets have a cap payroll of $47.7 million and $41.7 million. That's a huge proportion of the salary cap already eaten up by the current, ineffective version of the team. Now I've argued in the past (and continue to believe) that the team isn't actually as bad as this season would suggest. However, the lack of roster flexibility due to this massive salary commitment over the next few years is not good.

This means that the Jackets are stuck with who they have for a while and due to Howson's high contracts, he probably can't move them very easily. This kind of outlook is rather bleak (much more so than I had hoped) and even makes the always-optimistic refrain of "There's Always Next Year" look rather empty. Howson has jumped the gun on young players and made multiple poor signings, meaning the Blue Jackets are in an even tougher spot than just the one in the standings.

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