Scott Howson has reason to look a bit smug as he continues a summer of sweeping change for the Blue Jackets. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
In the space of just over a month, Scott Howson has radically changed the look and direction of the Columbus Blue Jackets, raising excitement levels among the fans and delivering a message that he wants his team to make the next big step - back to the playoffs and beyond.
Though feedback has been highly enthusiastic from Columbus fans, and generally positive from members of the wider hockey media, it's interesting to hear feedback from people who think Howson is "playing against type" with these big moves, and setting his image of "methodical" or "slow to act" on it's ear.
Though I agree Howson is certainly swinging for the fences this offseason, I'd actually disagree that he's been "Un-Howsonlike" in the way he's approached the team - I suspect that one relatively quiet offseason in his tenure has perhaps given us all a bit of a false impression.
Let's take a journey, if you will, back to 2007.
We remember Howson's debut at the 2007 NHL draft, where he selected Jakub Voracek with the 7th overall pick. But what most fans didn't know at the time (and you may have only learned by being a total draft wonk like me), is that Howson was actually seriously looking at trading back with St. Louis, after they acquired additional picks. In fact, the conversation was even caught on video as part of the NHL's "All Access NHL Draft" special (which focused on the Blues that year), where Howson was willing to trade as long as the Blues didn't want to take a player he had targeted (whom we assume was Jake Voracek), and the deal fell through as a result.
Howson's willingness to deal aggressively continued on the second day of the draft, when he packaged his 5th round pick and an additional pick to move up into the fourth round to grab Maxim Mayorov, and he moved to begin working on the "weak points" of his roster, despite being limited financially by Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote's contracts. Howson grabbed several players that July who would have major impact over the next few seasons - Jiri Novotny, Jan Hejda, Derek MacKenzie, and Michael Peca all joined the fold that offseason. He was also willing to take shots at guys like Kris Beech, Dan Smith, and Sheldon Brookbank to see if they might have something to offer.
Howson didn't hesitate to keep making moves early in the season, including acquiring Aaron Rome and Clay Wilson from Atlanta, but his next major move was an attempt to fix the team's power play - moving Curtis Glencross to Edmonton in exchange for Dick Tarnstrom. At that point, the team was still alive, but Adam Foote's trade demands changed the landscape rather quickly, and though Tarnstrom didn't pan out, it was a move that many thought was a reasonable attempt to add punch to the blue line.
From the ashes of the Adam Foote deal, it's also worth remembering that Howson brought in the additional first round pick that eventually became R.J. Umberger - a deal that Howson is widely considered to have "won" in hindsight. Many also forget that Columbus was in talks with Tampa Bay right up to the trade deadline for Brad Richards - losing to Dallas because the Stars were willing to offer up Mike Smith, while it's believed that Columbus refused to deal Steve Mason. Even in failure, Howson was still shooting for the player many felt was the best available during that trade deadline season.
The addition of Umberger is also notable because Howson not only dealt for the "heart & soul" player, but he was able to come to terms with him on a new four year extension, avoiding the risk of losing him to free agency and cementing him as a core player.
In that same offseason, Howson made moves to replace Adam Foote's defense by going after first Wayne Redden, and then Mike Commodore, and made the decision to offer up Nikolay Zherdev to bring in Fedor Tyutin. Once the blue line had been bolstered, he then grabbed Kristian Huselius to make up for the lost offense up front, flipped the developmentally frustrated Gilbert Brule to Edmonton in exchange for the sandpaper of Raffi Torres, and would continue to tinker with his lineup by "stealing" Wade Dubliewicz off the waiver wire on his return from the KHL, adding Jason Williams in January, and later grabbing Antoine Vermette at the deadline.
The tinkering, however, paid off, and the team made their first playoff appearance as a result.
From that playoff squad, Howson and head coach Ken Hitchcock made three key conclusions.
A) That appearance had taken a "maxing out" of the team, both offensively and defensively.
B) The team's backup goaltending carousel (which had included Dan Lacosta, Wade Dubliewicz, and Freddy Norenna) was unacceptable, and had to be solidified.
C) The team's depth down the middle was still a weakness.
Howson attempted to address the talent aspect with the hope of Nikita Filatov stepping up to the NHL as Jakub Voracek had, then provided Mathieu Garon and the addition of Dave Rook to the team's coaching staff to help "fix" the goaltending tandem. When the team could not find common ground with Manny Malhotra, he also strengthened the team's depth (and provided a veteran checker) in Samuel Pahlsson, whom many though would be "the answer" in taking on the top lines of division opponents like the Red Wings and Blackhawks.
Howson would also use that offseason to cement his core further, locking in Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, and Rostislav Klesla to new deals, and eventually added what he hoped to be the last 'piece of the puzzle' on the blue line with Anton Stralman.
As we know, that didn't work out as planned, but Howson still attempted to make moves to correct the problems in flight. When "lack of veteran communication" was brought up by Ken Hitchcock, Howson was willing to go out and acquire Chris Clark (and also help with the injury prone season on the blue line with Milan Jurcina), and though he eventually cut the cord with Ken Hitchcock, Howson was still willing to move pieces to keep stocking his roster, trading his highest value non-core players in Freddy Modin and Raffi Torres.
Unlike previous offseasons, the summer of 2010 saw Howson mostly concentrating on the team's front office, and even then he was willing to take a few risks.
While much has been made of the fact that Guy Boucher turned Columbus down when offered the head coaching job, it's worth considering Boucher (and, for that matter, Scott Arniel), compared to the coaching market at the time.
All of Howson's top choices were "outside the box" at one level or another - though all had minor league coaching experience, none had been an NHL coach before, and the final two candidates he considered worthy of leading the franchise were both coming with only a few years at the AHL level - successful years, but still relatively "slim" resumes.
Where Howson arguably erred was in expecting a room that had been through a difficult transition in the previous season to blossom under the new coach's system without the addition of talent more suited to the more up-tempo style - and despite that, the team still nearly pulled it off. It also adds and interesting context to the Jeff Carter move, for example, to know that Howson was trying to acquire the top line center he knew the team needed all the way back to last January.
Howson has, consistently, been making moves throughout each season to either work on building his prospect pool or improving the on ice product. He's unafraid to make changes to his roster during the season, and though he's done it at a larger level this offseason, perhaps, than previous, he's clearly willing to spend money on players he thinks can be part of a long term solution.
So, with that in mind, the deals for Carter, Wisniewski, and even Prospal don't seem all that "unHowson" at all. He's seen needs and attempted to fill them from the beginning. There may be more urgency in the perception of the fanbase, but a look at the team's transaction history since he arrived speaks to the furious pace of the Howson era...the man that many believed has been sitting still for much of his tenure has truly been running flat out since Day 1.