COLUMBUS, OH -- Nationwide Insurance, the company that helped bring the Blue Jackets to Columbus and owns the naming rights to their arena, had a commercial campaign that features the catch slogan: "Life comes at you fast."
Blue Jackets fans had to nod in agreement every time they heard one of those commercials last season.
One year ago, expectations for the team were never higher. They had just tasted playoff hockey for the first time in franchise history. Steve Mason's meteoric rise on his way to winning the Calder Trophy was the talk of the league. Prized prospect Nikita Filatov seemed poised to fulfill his first round promise. And Hitch was the toast of the town.
When the smoke had cleared on a season that imploded before it was half over, fans surveying the damage were left asking three big questions. Who would GM Howson turn to as the first head coaching hire of his tenure? Would he finally acquire a first line center to compliment Rich Nash? Would he address the team's glaringly mediocre blueline? As the Blue Jackets embark on their 10th NHL season, here are the answers: Scott Arniel, no and no.
Any discussion of what Howson did in the off-season (or more accurately what he didn't do) deserves a little bit of perspective. For the first 20 games of the 2009-10 campaign, all was right in Columbus, or so it appeared. On Nov. 19, 2009, after a convincing 4-1 road win over Dallas, the CBJ stood at 12-6-2, the best start in franchise history. But on closer inspection, something was starting to bubble up under the surface. The team was winning, but you wouldn't have known it from listening to Hitch. Instead of building the young team up for their accomplishments, Hitchcock was ripping them -- sometimes not so subtly -- for their transgressions, most notably playing a very unsound defensive game.
By early November, it was becoming apparent that Hitchcock's message was not being received loud and clear in the locker room. Despite the strong start out of the gate, the Blue Jackets began to fulfill Hitchcock's prophecy. Mason looked uncomfortable and, at times, downright lost. Hitch tried to quell any panic, dismissing talk of a sophomore slump and defending his young net-minder while heaping blame on his teammates for defensive lapses in their own zone. Despite the show of support, Mason continued to struggle and grew demonstrably frustrated by the soft play in front of him. The more frustrated and vocal Hitch became, the worse things seemed to get.
On Nov. 11, the Blue Jackets got waxed 9-1 by the Red Wings in Nationwide (and it wasn't as close as the score might suggest). The team rebounded to win its next three games in shaky fashion, but their already fragile psyche appeared to be on life support.
Then came the first bombshell.
After becoming disenchanted with reduced playing time and being Hitchcock's poster boy for irresponsible play in the defensive zone, Filatov decided that he had endured enough. He approached Howson and informed him that he wanted to return to Russia and play in the KHL. On Nov. 18, much to the surprise of everyone, Howson announced that Filatov was being loaned to CSKA of the Kontinental Hockey League for the balance of the season.
Over the next 24 games, the Blue Jackets suffered a free fall of epic proportions, going 3-14-7 in that span. The timing of the team's demise and the departure of Filatov was likely coincidental, but Filatov's hasty retreat to Russia became Exhibit A in the People vs. Hitchcock, a case built largely on the perception that Hitch had lost touch with both today's young players and the post-lockout NHL game.
By early January, talk of making the playoffs had been reduced to a whisper. Then on Feb. 3, 2010, the second bombshell exploded. Hitchcock was relieved of his duties and the team was handed over to assistant coach Claude Noel on an interim basis. In the span of roughly two months, Hitchcock went from being idolized in Columbus to out of work. [Quiet on the set please! Nationwide commercial with Ken Hitchcock, take one. And . . . . . action!]
Howson's first order of business in the off-season was to name a new coach. The search began in earnest in late April. Howson interviewed former Blue Jacket player Kenin Dineen of the AHL's Portland Pirates, who became the early front-runner. He interviewed Scott Arniel of the AHL's Manitoba Moose and Detroit Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean. He interviewed interim coach Claude Noel. But all along he had his eye on another AHL coach, Hamilton Bulldog coach and wunderkind Guy Boucher. The problem was that Boucher was leading his team to the AHL Western Conference finals. So Howson waited. And waited. And waited.
In the first few days of June, Howson finally got his sit-down with Boucher. Nobody seemed surprised when word leaked to the media on Jun. 5 that Howson had offered Boucher the job (except maybe Howson). When word didn't leak out immediately afterward that Boucher was accepting the job, Howson was forced to divulge that he was giving Boucher a couple of days to consider the offer. That was not interpreted as a positive sign by Blue Jackets fans (or anybody else). So again, nobody seemed surprised when Boucher ultimately rejected Howson's offer and instead signed on to become newly appointed GM Steve Yzerman's guy (or Guy, if you will) in Tampa Bay. Before the egg could dry on his face, Howson launched Plan B and offered the job to Scott Arniel. We'll never know if Howson gave Arniel two days to think about it, but probably not. Arniell accepted immediately.
With the long and somewhat painful task of finding a coach behind him, Howson next embarked on his plan to bolster the lineup. Well, actually, no he didn't. But that really came as no surprise either. Throughout the team's struggles last year, Howson steadfastly maintained that the solutions to the Blue Jackets problems were already located in the locker room.
Prior to last season he locked up his two best centermen, Derrick Brassard and Antoine Vermette, as well as defenseman Rusty Klesla to contract extensions. He averted disaster by signing Rick Nash to a long term extension. Howson's allowance had been spent. With sparse cap room and little fat to trim from the roster, Howson headed into the off-season with his dance card already signed and fresh out of erasers.
Blue Jackets fans did not get the first-line center or the puck-moving defensemen they have coveted for some time now. But they did get an entirely new coaching staff, one that brings a wealth of NHL playing experience. Arniel himself logged 730 games in the NHL as a player. He will be joined by former NHL players Brad Berry (241 games), Bob Boughner (630 NHL games) and Dan Hinote (503 games). On the flipside, the staff has barely a ripple of NHL coaching experience. Still, Arniel's hiring, while certainly a gamble, promises to bring energy and an up-tempo style that Howson expects will better fit the talent he has assembled.
Is that enough to create optimism in a fan-base that is tired of being told to be patient? By itself, probably not. But the Blue Jackets will have two potentially notable additions to the roster when camp begins.
The first is Filatov, who returned from Russia a good six weeks early sporting added muscle, renewed enthusiasm and a clean slate. Rumors were flying throughout the summer that Filatov was being shopped. If Arniel manages to harness the mercurial uber-prospect and tap into his immense potential, trading Filatov could become the best thing Howson didn't do this off-season.
The second addition to the roster is former Edmonton Oiler captain Ethan Moreau, who Howson claimed off of waivers this summer. Moreau arrives with a good-sized chip on his shoulder, determined to prove that at 34 years old (soon to be 35) he still has meaningful minutes to contribute. Howson hopes Moreau's grit, work ethic and leadership will rub off quickly on his young teammates. It's a one year gamble and at $1.75 million, a relatively cheap one.
The swift manner in which the air was let out of last year's balloon has tempered expectations for the Blue Jackets' 2010-11 season. CBJ fans can be excused for sounding a bit like former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora: "Playoffs? Don't talk about. . . . .playoffs? Are you kidding me?"
The Blue Jackets making a run at the post-season is just crazy talk, right? But consider that this is still a young team with loads of potential. And outside of the aforementioned 24 game implosion that occurred during a six week span in November and December, the Blue Jackets compiled a respectable 29-21-8 record last year.
Howson made very little noise in the off-season. Now it's time to find out if silence can indeed be golden.