The Scott Howson Era In Columbus: A Symphony Of Errors
Throughout the Blue Jackets' 13-year history, they have only made the playoffs once, which they accomplished during the 2008-2009 season, the second year of Howson's tenure as general manager. Rookie goaltender Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy as the best rookie that season, and it appeared as if the Blue Jackets, under Howson, had finally emerged as a competitive franchise that wouldn't finish at the bottom of the standings every season.
However, this story does not have a fairy tale ending. Since the Blue Jackets made the playoffs that season, not much has gone well for them.
Mason has not been able to match his performance he had during his rookie season. During that season, Mason had a 33-20-7 record, with 10 of those wins as shutouts, and spotted a 2.29 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Mason's 10 shutouts on the season led the entire NHL. He was even nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, which put him among the same ranks as Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo. With all of this in mind, it appeared the Blue Jackets had finally found their franchise goaltender, after Marc Denis struggled in the team's early years and Pascal Leclaire's injury issues prevented the team from finding a stable net presence in years' past.
Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, he's gone 62-78-19, and he's averaged a 3.13 GAA and a .899 save percentage. It should be noted that during the 2011-12 season, Steve Mason admitted that he had no idea his goalie pads were smaller than NHL regulations, and that he never knew he could wear bigger pads. When all's said and done, the Blue Jackets have finished fifth in the Central Division every year since 2009, coming nowhere close to the playoffs each and every time.
While Steve Mason's poor play didn't help, the 2009-10 season also began Howson's downfall. Howson fired head coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 3, 2010, and Ken Hitchcock is still the only coach to have ever led the franchise to the playoffs. At the 2010 trade deadline, the Blue Jackets had a fire sale. They traded Fredrik Modin and Milan Jurcina to the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals respectively, receiving conditional picks in return. The conditions in both trades were not met, leaving the Blue Jackets empty-handed after trading away two roster players. In total, the Blue Jackets made five trades on Deadline Day, saying goodbye to Raffi Torres, Mathieu Roy and Alexandre Picard, though unlike the first two trades mentioned above, Howson's team did get players in return in those trades.
The trades Howson made at the 2010 trade deadline didn't help the team, but neither did his coaching hire for the 2010-11 season. Scott Arniel, hired during the 2010 offseason to replace Hitchcock, led the Blue Jackets to a lousy 34-35-13 record (81 points). That was a marginal improvement over the 2009-10 season that saw them finish with a 32-35-15 record (79 points) that was led by the dual efforts of Hitchcock and interim coach Claude Noel.
The 2011 offseason saw Howson gamble away the once-bright future for the Blue Jackets, as every move he made turned out to be the wrong one.
On June 23, 2011, Howson traded the promising young forward Jakub Voracek and the team's 2011 first-round pick and third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Jeff Carter. The Flyers used that first-round pick (8th overall) to select Sean Couturier, who played 77 games for the Flyers and scored 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points that season. Voracek scored 18 goals and had 31 assists, and 18 goals were a career high for Voracek.
Six days later, the Blue Jackets traded a fifth-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for the rights to James Wisniewski, and two days later, Howson signed Wisniewski to a 6-year, $33 million contract. The Blue Jackets on paper looked like a formidable team, as they had franchise player Rick Nash, gifted goal scorer Jeff Carter, and a new No. 1 defenseman in James Wisniewski to lead the team forward.
Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. In fact, the moves blew up in Howson's face.
The Blue Jackets did not win a game in the 2011-12 season until Oct. 25, and by that point, the team was already 1-7-1. Scott Arniel was fired on Jan. 8, 2012, with the team in last place in the Central Division at 11-25-5, and Todd Richards took over for the rest of the season.
With the season a major disaster, the Blue Jackets had yet another fire sale at the 2012 trade deadline. First to go was Antoine Vermette, who was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for injured goaltender Curtis McElhinney, a 2012 second-round pick and a 2013 conditional pick. Next to go was Carter, who was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jack Johnson and a conditional 2012 or 2013 first-round pick. The Blue Jackets elected to take the Kings' pick in 2013.
Carter didn't necessarily help Howson's cause, as he did not want to be traded from Philadelphia in the first place, since he signed an 11-year, $58 million extension with the Flyers that included a no-trade clause beginning in the 2012-13 season.
Columbus finished the 2011-2012 season 29-46-7, dead last in the NHL standings with 65 points.
Howson finally traded Nash during the 2012 offseason, along with Steven Delisle and a conditional third-round pick, to the New York Rangers in exchange for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and New York's 2013 first-round pick. In 674 games, Nash tallied 289 goals and 258 assists for 547 points, and he left as the Jackets' all-time leader in all of those categories.
In a span of 13 months, the Blue Jackets lost Jakub Voracek, the 2011 first-round pick that became Sean Couturier, Antoine Vermette, Jeff Carter, and Rick Nash. It was a devastating season for the Blue Jackets regarding personnel movement, and it will take years to recover from Howson's mistakes.
On Feb. 12, 2013, Blue Jackets President John Davidson fired Howson from his General Manager and Executive Vice President positions. The Blue Jackets were 4-7-2 when Howson was fired.
The next day, Davidson hired Jarmo Kekalainen as the new general manager, the first European general manager in the NHL. Kekalainen had previously worked with Davidson while they were with the St. Louis Blues, who are now one of the top teams in the Western Conference thanks to Kekalainen's keen scouting abilities that contributed to great drafts.
To be fair to Howson, because he traded Carter to the Kings and Nash to the Rangers, and got first-round picks in return in each of those trades, the Blue Jackets will have three first-round picks in the 2013 NHL Draft. The Springfield Falcons, the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate, are one of the best teams in the AHL, and are currently second place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-12-4-3 record, earning 67 points in the process.
One of the reasons the Falcons are doing so well is because of the success story that is Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. Audy-Marchessault was signed by Howson as an undrafted free agent in 2012, and in his first season with the Falcons, he leads the team with 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 48 games. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 31, 2013, and will likely be a regular member of the Blue Jackets next season if he continues his point-per-game production with the Falcons.
The Blue Jackets also have prospects like T.J. Tynan, Mike Reilly, Seth Ambroz, and Kevin Lynch developing in the NCAA, and once they're finished playing three or four years of college hockey, the next step for those prospects is either a straight jump to the Blue Jackets, or more time developing with the Springfield Falcons. Junior prospect Boone Jenner and Swedish prospect Oscar Dansk are also not too far away from making an impact on the Blue Jackets.
While Howson was able to provide the Blue Jackets with a solid farm system, he's unfortunately going to be most remembered for the Jeff Carter fiasco and the Rick Nash debacle. But, with draft guru Jarmo Kekalainen now serving as general manager for the Blue Jackets, the future looks very bright.