Why We Need a Good Month - A Response to Michael Arace

I met Michael Arace in passing once or twice while working press for Blue Jackets game this past season. He seems like a good guy, and he seems genuine and personable. That's why it's tough for me to read his column in today's Dispatch. If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don't, why the hell not??), a lot of what I'm about to write won't be new to you. But, in that world of 140 character blasts, it can be tough to really reflect and expound on what one is feeling.

Matt linked to the column in today's Shrapnel, and we've commented a bit on that piece. So, I apologize for any redundancies here. Just the same, here's the wacky thing: I agree with Arace's premise in principle. In his title and opening, he notes how important this coming off-season--specifically, the draft and free agency--is to the franchise. With the sale and relocation of the Thrashers in the context of how much of a struggle it's been for Columbus over the last decade, one could hardly disagree with him in that assessment. 

The team lost quite a few season ticket holders last season. They toyed with the fanbase with a hot start, and a hot stretch in January and February, only to lower the boom in December and March and finish another season way off the playoff radar. It's imperative that the on-ice product gets better, not only to get fans back in seats, but to show some kind of necessity for things--such as the team's crummy lease issue with the arena--to get worked out.

But, for me, it was how Arace buttressed that premise that really, frankly, ticked me off. Let's break it down a bit, shall we?

First, Arace lays out his reasons for the negative attitudes and perceptions of the team from the fanbase: the loss of $25 million this year, the loss of Bob Boughner from the coaching staff, Atlanta's move and the lack of a trip to the Eastern Conference this year for Columbus, and seeing first-choice-coach Guy Boucher guide the Tampa Bay Lightning to one game away from playing for the Cup.

All fair, though Arace conveniently glosses over the fact that Tampa's roster is infinitely more talent-laden than is the Jackets, at least in the context of Boucher's success being a stomach-punch to Jackets fans. Arace does give a nod to the fact that Columbus missed on Martin St. Louis in the 2000 expansion draft (while ignoring the other Lightning player, Dwayne Roloson, that the Jackets took but never intended to keep), but at this point, rehashing Doug MacLean's sins from 11 years ago doesn't do anybody any good. But, file that one away for later, won't you?

All of those assessments/issues are fair in their own right, I guess, and Arace's right that they help to pile on the malaise that many fans of the franchise have been feeling this spring and summer.

It's at that point, however, that the column takes a detour off the road and heads off into the woods, bumping along on a dirt road of apparent ax-grinding and false-positives toward a cabin Arace has labeled "sending a spark toward the casual fans" of the team, a group he highlights as "hovering somewhere between moribund and disgusted." Let's file that turn of phrase away for later, as well.

Here's where it gets dicey. As another reason for Jackets fans to feel bad, Arace cites the following:

"...the Florida Panthers hired Kevin Dineen. [This development] gave pause to longtime Jackets fans.

Dineen was an original Jacket and he seemed the right fit to coach in Columbus, but his experience as a player and a developer of talent and his sterling AHL record were somehow lost in the interview process here. Maybe he didn't put a cover letter on the TPS reports."

A few things jump out, here. First and foremost, I am a longtime Jackets fan, and while I can only speak for myself, the Panthers hiring Dineen did not give me pause. He was a candidate for the Jackets' job. He didn't get it. The story for me ends there. On top of that, I don't tend to put a lot of stock in *anything* that Florida does as an organization. They have been worse over the last decade than have the Jackets, if you can believe it. They've made the playoffs only three times in 17 seasons, and haven't made the playoffs in Columbus's entire history as a franchise. AND they let Doug MacLean swindle them out of the right to pick Rick Nash, but that's just me being snarky.

But that's not even my issue, here. It's the issue that Jackets fans should somehow care about Dineen. We hired our coach last summer. Arniel coached for four seasons with Vancouver's AHL team--yes, the same Vancouver now playing for the Stanley Cup. So, it stands to reason that the young players the Canucks developed along the road to the summit owe some of their success to Arniel, no? Arniel was also an NHL player, though in fairness not in the same vein as was Dineen. Even still, given what we know about Arniel, I don't see how Dineen's "experience as a player and a developer of talent and his sterling AHL record" somehow far outshine that of Arniel. It's a farce to say that those qualities of Dineen were "lost in the interview process," especially when one looks at Arniel and Dineen side-by-side as coaching candidates. At the end of the day, the not-so-subtle dig at management with the quote from the movie Office Space reads like sour grapes from Arace.

It seemed almost from the outset that the Dispatch guys were lobbying hard for Dineen. We were told throughout their coverage of the coaching search that he was the front-runner, the number-one choice, up until the days that Scott Howson offered the job first to Boucher and then to Arniel. And, the Dispatch writers having a preference for Dineen is fine; it's not that I think he was a bad candidate. Where it becomes an issue is when things like what Arace writes are said intending to state as some kind of fact that Dineen is somehow infinitely more qualified than Arniel, and the Jackets have made some kind of huge mistake letting Dineen get away to the Panthers. 

But, as we read on, we start to see the real reason for all of this hindsight and (what I believe is) revisionist history vis a vis Dineen. Arace continues: 

"The position of goaltending coach, vacated by Dave Rook, was filled yesterday. Ian Clark, let go by Vancouver last summer, is the hire. Time will tell whether Clark can reach Steve Mason.

Ron Tugnutt and Marc Denis, two original Jackets, are out there coaching goaltenders. These gentlemen proudly wore the colors when it appeared the franchise was on the come. Neither was given the courtesy of an interview, which is unsettling. It is as if the Jackets are shunning what little tradition they have." [emphasis mine]

There are a few things missing here, first of all. The main thing missing is a breakdown of Ian Clark's credentials. He's worked with NHL talent for almost 10 years. He runs a goalie development institute that is widely cited as being one of the best in the business. He's worked with Roberto Luongo--you know, the guy that won a gold medal for Team Canada and is on the verge (last night notwithstanding) of winning a Stanley Cup. It has been reported that the ONLY reason Clark was "let go by Vancouver last summer" is that Vancouver wanted a full-time coach, Clark was only part time, and couldn't commit because he needed to be at home in Texas for a family concern... a concern that he says has since been rectified. Clark is coming to the Jackets on a full-time basis. ALL of this was reported in Arace's paper the same day as this column.

It is because of all of this that I find his insinuation that Clark's hiring is somehow unfair to both Ron Tugnutt and Marc Denis--which is provably false just by lining up their resumes--to be disheartening. I'm not saying Tugger and Denis are bad coaches, or that they won't be NHL goaltending coaches--and good ones--some day. But, when it comes down to making sound hires for a sports organization, one truth remains:

Hire with your head, not with your heart.

Denis and Tugnutt did proudly wear the colors of this franchise, and the fans loved them. This is true. This does not, however, make them more qualified than they are to be an NHL goaltending coach. Neither of them have experience coaching at the NHL level; Clark does. Neither of them have worked with an all-star NHL goalie; Clark has. Neither of them has four medals--two silver and two gold--from Team Canada's World Juniors team on their resume; Clark does. Thus, to me, it's not "unsettling" at all that neither was given an interview for the job. Scott Howson knows this year is make-or-break for him and for this franchise. He knows one of the biggest keys to success will be Steve Mason and/or any other goalies on the roster.

And, sadly, deep down one has to believe that Arace knows that lobbying for less-qualified candidates to get a job simply because they have ties to an 11-year-old franchise flies completely in the face of his premise that the next month is so important to the future success of this franchise.

Remember my comment about rehashing the sins of Doug MacLean? The Dispatch guys have--rightly--commented frequently on how badly at times this franchise has been run over the last decade. How, then, does it make ANY sense to turn around and say something as caustic as: "It's as if the Jackets are shunning what little tradition they have"?

The truth is, this franchise has little more than a brief tradition of losing, and of finishing far out of the playoff picture. Why would we want to embrace that tradition when it's clear that there's something better out there? Ian Clark's hiring represents a huge "get" for the Jackets: he's a full-time goaltending coach (a first for the franchise) with bonafide credentials and NHL experience. Why would we want to pass on that in favor of guys with less experience and credentials simply because they're former Jackets players? And, in that specific case, how does it help the long-term health of the franchise--which directly impacts fan support--to placate a small fringe of the fanbase with names they know in place of a person who's way more qualified for the job?

To borrow a phrase, it's not show-friends, it's show-business. Most fans know this.

To me, the column would have been better served by citing Clark's hiring as the first in hopefully a long line of things the Jackets will have done right this off-season. Arace is correct in following the above with pointing out how important it will be to get an influx of talent via trade, free agency, or possibly trading the 8th overall pick as part of a package for immediate help. He's right about how truly important it is for Howson to hit more than he misses over the next month. However, he would have better served his point by pointing out that Clark was a definite hit, not some kind of missed marketing opportunity.

As I said on Twitter this morning, smart CBJ fans would rather the franchise hire someone with better credentials (Ian Clark) than someone who once played for us (Tugger, Denis). If you want to spark the fanbase, what better way to do it than by nailing this hire?

And so I was disappointed when Arace ended his column with another shot across the collective bow of management with respect to getting their fans back into the fold:

"Howson will try to turn his draft pick(s) and bodies at hand into at least one legitimate player up front and one in back. He has time to make trades in the weeks leading up to the draft. He has the draft. He has the first four days of July, when the top free-agent talent will be available.

After that, the window closes on the month, and on next season."

That first paragraph is right on the money. No arguments. It's that last sentence, however, that doesn't belong. The Jackets showed flashes last season that they are capable of being a decent-if-not-great team. You can make arguments in certain areas that they're not that far away. Howson has work to do, to be sure, this summer.

But, to imply that Howson not knocking several shots out of the park means the season is moot? That's bush league. That's sensationalism. It's also an insult to the players and coaches already here on the roster, and more ironically, to the fans that supported the team this past season. Arace is cutting off his proverbial nose to spite his face in spending a whole page talking about how important it is to get fans back into the fold only to, at the very end, essentially tell fans that if Howson doesn't move mountains this summer there's no point in caring.

Overall, as I said at the outset, Arace is working with a winning premise. The Jackets' upcoming offseason is arguably the most important one of the franchise's brief history. He provides a good deal of realistic support for that premise, including diagnosing and laying out the importance of the events and decisions of the next month for Scott Howson.

But, the column--and the writer--fall short of doing the premise complete justice when they become poisoned with the hypocrisy that the franchise will lose fans by not embracing their own limited tradition, while at the same time pointing out how that tradition has left the franchise in such a precarious position.

You can't have it both ways, Michael. 

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