Well, we're officially to the point of the off-season where I'm scraping at the bottom of the barrel for things to write about, but something Matt touched on in today's Shrapnel column got me to thinking. Matt, in addressing the Islanders' fans reviewing the five years under GM Garth Snow, posed the following:
Scott Howson doesn't come up for a similar review until next year, but what do you think? The two men are in interesting parallels, particularly considering these are "smaller market" teams with arena issues who need to make the playoffs to re-invigorate a fanbase. Are the Jackets better, today, than they were when Scott Howson stepped into his office for the first time?
Matt says one would have to think yes, but it got me to thinking: what does the roster look like now compared to back then? There are obviously some caveats, but let's--in the spirit of the drought of other topics to write about--stack them up! Let's set some ground rules. First and foremost, I'm going to use the opening day roster from the '07-'08 season as the "then" list, and the roster as it stands today as the "now". Obviously, it could change a bit between now and opening day, and to be fair we won't be considering players such as Ryan Johansen as "on the roster" for these purposes. More qualifiers after the jump...
Also missing is Kristian Huselius, who deserves mention due to his contributions over the past three years but won't be making much of an impact this season, most likely. Finally, because there remain some decisions to be made with respect to top-six wingers vs. centers, we'll make some assumptions for today's roster, just for the sake of moving forward. I've referred to Mike's depth chart for any tie-breakers/promotions.
We'll take a look at a few comparisons to try to gauge the "health" of the roster while also considering the transitions between then and now. We'll compare lines, we'll take a look at "best prospects not in the NHL," and we'll take a look at Howson draft picks who are contributing.
At first glance, we see how today's team is truly Howson's team. The summer of 2008 was "the big purge" if you will, but compare the two rosters. We have exactly one guy contributing now that contributed in 2007. Depending on your point of view, that can be good and it can be appalling. I think it's a bit of both, myself. Alright, let's get on with it!
By The Numbers
All stats are from the previous season
Leading Scorer, Points: Then - David Vyborny (64); Now - Rick Nash (66)
Most Goals: Then - Rick Nash (27); Now - Rick Nash (32)
Most Assists: Then - David Vyborny (48); Now - Rick Nash (34)
+/- Leader: Then - Anders Eriksson (+12); Now - Derek MacKenzie (+14)
Goalie Wins: Then - Fredrik Norrena (24); Now - Steve Mason (24)
Goalie GAA: Then - Fredrik Norrena (2.78); Now - Mathieu Garon (2.72)
Goalie SV%: Then - Fredrik Norrena (.904); Now - Mathieu Garon (.901)
Best players not playing in the NHL:
Center: Derick Brassard; '06-'07: 15G, 34A, 49Pts in 26 gms (incl. playoffs) for Drummondville, QMJHL
Wing: Jakub Voracek; '06-'07: 30G, 80A, 110Pts in 71 gms (incl. playoffs) for Halifax, QMJHL
Defense: Kris Russell; '06-'07: 36G, 53A, 89Pts in 86 gms (incl. playoffs) for Medicine Hat, WHL
Goal: Steve Mason; '06-'07: 3.20 gaa, .914 sv% in 62 games for London, OHL; OHL Goaltender of the Year
Center: Ryan Johansen; '10-'11: 53G, 67A, 120Pts in 83 gms (incl. playoffs) for Portland, WHL
Wing: Cam Atkinson; '10-'11: 31G, 21A, 52Pts in 39 gms for Boston College, NCAA; 3G, 2A, 5Pts in 5 gms for Springfield, AHL
Defense: David Savard; '10-'11: 11G, 32A, 44Pts in 72 gms for Springfield, AHL
Goal: Allen York; '10-'11: 2.17 gaa, .924 sv% in 34 games for RPI, NCAA; 2.04 gaa, .926 sv% in 4 gms for Springfield, AHL
This is hard to target, in truth, since a new GM is going to go through a roster purge and bring in "his" guys, and four years is a bit too early to really have a sense of how well draft picks have panned out. First, let's look at the guys on the projected roster who were drafted pre-Howson:
Rick Nash, 2002 first round
Marc Methot, 2003, sixth round
Grant Clitsome, 2004, ninth round
Kris Russell, 2005, third round
Jared Boll, 2005, fourth round
Derick Brassard, 2006 first round
Steve Mason, 2006, third round
Derek Dorsett, 2006, seventh round
It's not surprising to find a bunch of pre-Howson draft picks on this year's team; that's just a fact of life in a sport where players are drafted two- to five-years before they're expected to make an NHL impact. Of note, however, is that other than Nash--whom Doug MacLean lucked into, IMHO, because of the stupidity of the Panthers--Steve Mason might be the only other guy on this list considered an "impact" player, and not always for a positive impact. Brassard has the potential to be, but hasn't shown the consistency. A lot of grinders, and only one defenseman considered "top four" material now.
To contrast, all four of the "best not in the NHL" listed above for the "Now" team are Howson picks: Johansen (2010, 1st); Atkinson (2008, 6th); Savard (2009, 4th); York (2007, 6th). One thing that does jump out, however, is that a lot of Howson's lower round picks appear to be panning out with higher ceilings. In addition, I found that there is an important contrast between the lists of "bests not in the NHL" from the two eras: the ones from "now" are all considerably closer to the NHL; all four of the "then" guys were in juniors at that point, which illustrates a lack of high-end depth in the system. Conversely, three of Howson's four "bests" right now played in Springfield at some point last season, and ironically the guy who played in juniors looks to be the lone "lock" (if there is one) of the group to make the NHL roster.
Here are some other Howson picks of note that are ascending the ranks, and their likely 2011-2012 homes:
W Jakub Voracek, 2007 first round - traded June, 2011 in a package for C Jeff Carter
W Maksim Mayorov, 2007, fourth round - could make Columbus's roster, if not Springfield, AHL
D Cody Galoubef, 2008, second round - Springfield, AHL
W Matt Calvert, 2008, fifth round - Columbus, NHL
W Tomas Kubalik, 2008, fifth round - could make Columbus's roster, if not Springfield, AHL
D John Moore, 2009, first round - Springfield, AHL
D Anton Blomqvist, 2009, sixth round - Springfield, AHL
W Petr Straka, 2010, second round - Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL/Springfield, AHL
I list these players, as they're all potentially going to be in Springfield (or higher) this season, and I list Voracek because he'd be on the top line had he not been traded (it should be pointed out, for a bona-fide All Star). What this tells me is that, while Howson has had mostly the same failure rate in the first round that his predecessor had, his lower round picks are generally panning out more solidly. Look at the high level talent assembled in just four drafts compared to the low-round contributions from Doug MacLean's tenure. It seems to say that Howson has had better success making hay in the lower rounds.
So, the "immediate impact" talent is almost a wash (Rick Nash  and Derick Brassard remain the only first round picks of the Jackets on the team's roster, thanks to the trades of Voracek and Nikita Filatov and the "not ready yet" status of John Moore and Ryan Johansen, though the latter can be debated). However, in terms of the draft, Howson has made a much bigger impact on the system as a whole.
Trades and Free Agency
This is clearly where Howson wins the battle. Under Doug MacLean, who were the big acquisitions? Ray Whitney? Sergei Fedorov on the wrong side of his career? Adam Foote? Darryl Sydor? Yikes.
That's not to say Howson has had his misses, and/or his bad strategies. The Chris Clark/Ethan Moreau/Craig Rivet roster moves show that misguided "leadership is good!" philosophy; you win in the NHL with talent.
To that end, Howson has brought in more legitimate NHL talent via trades and free agency than his predecessor, by far. RJ Umberger. Fedor Tyutin. Antoine Vermette. Jeff Carter. James Wisniewski. I'll even give him bonus points for moving Rostislav Klesla for guys that could have helped had the team continued pushing for the playoffs, but at worst gave him a huge salary relief heading into this off-season.
For my money, Howson has identified a solid core of NHL players, and locked most of them up for a considerable time period to allow for consistency at the NHL level. Sure, a contract like Steve Mason's (and the aforementioned deal to Klesla) might not look great in the future, but assuming Umberger is re-upped this summer, the top-six will essentially be locked up for at least four or five more years.
And that, as we've meandered through all of these comparisons, is the crux of the question for me:
Is the roster and system better off now than it was four years ago?
Let's look at the "system" first. While Howson's drafts haven't borne a ton of fruit at the NHL level, and his first round picks have had much the same result to this point of Doug MacLean's, I am of the belief that Howson's drafts have shown an improvement in lower-round talent. I am also of the belief that, while again not yet making the impact in the NHL just yet, the Jackets' system is in far, far better shape from top to bottom than it was four years ago.
In terms of the NHL roster, I do believe it's in better shape, though the argument can--and probably should--be made that much of that has to do with this most recent off-season. Howson's previous approach of patience in trying to build a bridge at the NHL level until all of his future talent was ready was shown to be flawed the past two seasons. To his credit, however, he recognized (or was told, depending on whom you ask) that a change was needed to that approach vis a vis the NHL roster.
And, that roster looks totally different now in terms of potential than it did a month ago.
So, at the end of it all, to answer the original question, I say "yes." What say you?