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2011 Exit Interviews: The Men Behind The Bench

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When considering how we evaluate the players, it's relatively easy. What sort of stats did he have, what did we expect him to have, and so on.

A coach is a little more difficult - just as an orchestra conductor's "instrument" is the other musicians around him, the coach attempts to tune, tweak, and at times twist the players under him to bring out a winning performance, but he can't step onto the ice (outside of practice) to affect the outcome of the game directly, just as the conductor can't boot the first chair violin out of his seat and take over if he doesn't like the sound of the arpeggio that evening.

Given that Dave Rook has already resigned his position, we'll refrain from discussing him here.

Scott Arniel - Head Coach

  • 48 years old
  • 5 years coaching in the AHL, First season as an NHL head coach

What We Expected:

After Guy Boucher declined the offer of the Jackets' coaching job in favor of Tampa Bay, Scott Arniel was next on Scott Howson's list. With four years of success in Manitoba, a history of working in the NHL as an assistant, plus his playing career, he seemed a natural fit, with his plans to bring a more up-tempo style, plus the playing experience to back up his words, a weakness many cited with Ken Hitchcock. A younger, more aggressive coach for a younger, more aggressive roster. Perfect.

What We Got:

Early indications were positive as Scott Arniel lead the team on their best start in franchise history, then built their longest road winning streak, their first ever sweep of a West Coast trip, and challenged for the Central Division crown at the quarter pole of the season. He also took over the role of spokesman to the community seamlessly, happily taking on public appearances, radio show duties, and even showing up at a few OSU hockey games (schedule permitting) to watch his son play on the home squad.

Then, the team started to slip. Confidence got shakier and shakier, and Scott Arniel was clearly dealing with a lot of frustration, but he never stopped with a positive attitude towards the media (though the team likely felt the displeasure of his temper a few times), shuffled his lines and pairings a bit as he dealt with injuries and callups, and seemed to finally find some buttons to push as he got the team back on their feet through January and pushing their way back into the playoff picture at the trade deadline, before another skid found them out of the playoffs, and left with more questions than answers regarding his roster.

Despite that, Arniel kept an even strain and never seemed to let things get to  him, and despite it all, it's worth considering that he kept his team in the hunt all the way into late March - something no coach of the Jackets has done before in a year they failed to make the post-season.

We'll call this year a B, particularly since it was his first year with a club that did far, far worse a season ago (and with almost entirely the same roster).

What We Need To See:

Arniel kept excitement and energy for the job all through the year, even when things seemed blackest, and as I've stated, I truly do believe he is the right man for the job, but this team has to make the playoffs next season. I hate putting a gun to his head like that, but it's clear that the fans are losing patience with this club in droves. This year was a promise that with a bit more time and a bit better roster in place, Scott Arniel can make this club into a contender - and let's face it, before the team got to such a hot start and had us all thinking of watching hockey in June, how many of you would have been surprised to think the boys would stay in the hunt as long as they did under a rookie head coach?

But that promise has to be fulfilled, and a big part of that is going to be Arniel getting better performances out of his secondary scoring and defense.

 

 Brad Berry - Assistant Coach

  • 46 years old
  • 7 years as an assistant coach at U. North Dakota, 2 years of AHL assistant experience, first year as an NHL assistant coach.

What We Expected:

Formerly one of Scott Arniel's right hand men in Manitoba, Berry had taken a few years off due to personal reasons, but was willing to answer the call when Arniel offered him a chance to coach in the NHL. A proven defensive coach who worked with Mike Commodore at UND, his responsibility was primarily working with the D and getting them up to speed on how to contribute offensively at the right times without sacrificing defensively, and coaching the team's penalty kill.

What We Got:

Clearly, there is work to be done, and Berry may be one of the coaches most affected by the "Square pegs in round holes" discussion - particularly with former protege Mike Commodore, who found himself delivered off the island. On the other hand, the Jackets did have a strong PK for much of the year, and despite the fact that their overall PK came in at 80.2% at the end of the season (22nd overall), it was affected by some pretty awful late season performances - and the team actually only allowed 25 goals with the man advantage, which was much closer to the middle of the pack in the NHL. We'll call it a C

What We Need To See:

There are no indications that the team is changing assistant coaches at this point (with the exception of the goaltending coach), so assuming that Berry will be working with the D again, I'd argue his biggest job is making them into more of a cohesive and effective unit - too many times, it felt like the two defensemen on the ice weren't on the same page, and many of them seemed almost afraid of actively carrying the puck. With a lot of turnover likely on the blue line, he'll have his work cut out for him.

 

Bob Boughner - Assistant Coach

  • 40 years old
  • Three years coaching in the OHL as head coach and President of the Windsor Spitfires, 1st year as NHL assistant coach.

What We Expected:

One of the most surprising hires, Boughner had turned the Windows Spitfires from Zeroes to Heroes in the OHL, including back to back memorial cups, lead Team Canada's U-18 squad to a gold medal in the Ivan Hlinka memorial tournament, and was generally considered on the fast track to an NHL coaching job.

Taking the job in Columbus as a way to get experience with the grind of NHL coaching but still remain close to his family up in Windsor, Boughner was expected to help bring more expertise on the offensive side of the puck, working with the forwards and coaching the team's power play.

What We Got:

 With just 21 goals, the Jackets finished with the 29th power play in the league, statistically, and the fourth least goals. Columbus also surrendered the fourth most short handed goals  in the NHL, though that seemed to magically dry up not long after Anton Stralman was taken off the power play unit. *cough*

Paradoxically enough, the team was actually a far better team on the road, converting 15% of their opportunities, as opposed to the 12% they managed at home, and they actually scored the same amount of goals (21) at home as on the road - they simply had more chances in their own barn that slipped through their fingers.

A more concerning factor is how scoring dropped for nearly every forward on the club except R.J. Umberger and Derick Brassard. For someone who produced high scoring teams so easily in Juniors (though we'll admit the had some talent stocked rosters), it's bizarre that he couldn't get, say, Rick Nash past the 35 goal mark, or develop anyone besides Nash, Umberger, and Upshall (who did most of the work before arriving) into 20+ goal scorers.  C-

What We Need To See:

Assuming he doesn't try to jump onto the coaching carousel as it spins around again this offseason, Boughner, like Arniel, has to figure out what's broken on the power play, and get it working. Given how Grant Clitsome was able to inject so much potency into it, obviously more puck moving and scoring ability at the back end will make a big difference - but he's the one who needs to make sure that Jackets' fans are cheering for power play opportunities instead of cringing.

 

Dan Hinote - Assistant Coach

  • 34 years old
  • First year in a coaching position.

What We Expected:

A late hire when he decided to contact the club about the possibility of joining their staff following his retirement from pro hockey in the summer of 2010, Hinote was brought in and primarily acted as an eye in the sky, breaking down plays from the press box for the other coaches and assisting with video sessions and work with the team's checkers. A former agitator and penalty killer, he also spent time working with the PK and checking line forwards.

What We Got:

Originally slated to work with the team's players in Springfield, Scott Arniel decided he would be a good addition to the NHL level staff, so Hinote took on that role instead. Describing his role as bringing some energy to the organization, it's hard to really judge Hinote, but I think it's worth noting the seasons that guys like Derek MacKenzie and Jared Boll had under Hinote (did anyone really expect Jared Boll to have more goals than, say, Stralman or Filatov? Or for Derek MacKenzie to have as many points as Kristian Huselius?), and wonder if perhaps he had a few pointers that may have helped. We'll call it a B.

What We Need To See:

If Hinote is going to be the guy providing "energy", than that's exactly what we need to see more of on a consistent basis - too many times this team seemed to flop off the bench to start games late in the season rather than roaring out the way they did to start it. Keep the boys prepared to play and ready to put their backs into it.

 

Kevin Collins - Strength and Conditioning Coach

  • 29 years old
  • Five years as Strength & Conditioning / Video coach with the Buffalo Sabres organization, first year as the primary coach for an NHL team.

What We Expected:

Conditioning has been a dirty word around the Blue Jackets fandom for a LONG time. After the dismissal of Barry Brennan, Scott Arniel promised a much more "intense" training and conditioning regimen for the team, even having the locker room's workout facilities revised and expanded to help Collins in his work.

What We Got:

Generally, it seems that Collins was as good as his word, doing much more work monitoring the active heartrates, workouts, and physical levels of every player during practices and games. Though some outliers still produced questions about their commitment to NHL level fitness, that seems more an issue of personal irresponsibility than Collins' efforts. Though the team did lose quite a few players to injury, there was a lot less of the hip / groin / muscle injuries that were so common with poor conditioning, and more due to game related injuries.

What We Need To See:

Keep making this team into better athletes, and if they won't do the work, make sure the coaching staff and GM are aware, so they can be replaced with someone who will.

And now, last but not least...

 

Scott Howson - General Manager

  • 51 years old
  • Fourth year as general manager of the Blue Jackets, 6 years previously as an assistant GM with the Edmonton Oliers.

What We Expected:

After making the decision to change coaches and stand pat on the roster, the big question was if Howson's faith in players like Commodore, Stralman, Filatov, Huselius, and his defense would be rewarded.

What We Got:

By and large, Howson's decision to stand pat on the roster did not pay off, but he was willing to try and make moves to fix his mistakes, including the decision to move Rusty Klesla at the deadline, which appeared to be a move to increase the secondary scoring and provide a more suitable d-man for the team's need for puck movers. Though questioned by some for his decisions to trade prospects like Tom Sestito and reportedly on the verge of making a "blockbuster" trade in early February that failed to materialize, Howson appears to be shaking the reputation of being afraid to make moves. Despite some questioning by the Dispatch about his future in Columbus, Howson appears set for the forseeable future as the team's GM.

While I'm tempted to give him a D for his lack of offseason moves, I think it's clear he made efforts to fix those problems once the experiment had been shown to have failed, and I doubt he'll make the same mistake twice. We'll call it a C, potentially upgrading it if he should retain both Upshall and Lepisto.

What We Need To See:

In addition to addressing the questions around Jake Voracek and the flock of UFAs, particularly at the blue line, I think we need to see Howson make some kind of move at the draft and/ or free agency. It's time to really introduce some shakeups to this roster, and if he fails to do so for the second year in a row, there may be some serious questions not only from the fans, but from the owner's suite.