The last-place Columbus Blue Jackets are turning to a new coach in an effort to salvage something from a disastrous season.
Scott Arniel was fired following a 7-4 loss to Anaheim on Sunday night in a meeting of the NHL’s two worst teams. Assistant Todd Richards takes over for the remainder of the season, when a full search will be conducted.
The Blue Jackets are 20 points out of playoff position in the Western Conference with half a season to play. General manager Scott Howson decided to make the change because he thought the team had regressed in recent weeks, going 2-8-1 since Dec. 15.
“It’s gone off the rails since then,” Howson said Monday.
There were rumours Arniel’s job was in danger when the team got off to a miserable start, but Howson gave him the benefit of the doubt and saw some improvements in November.
Once the GM made the decision to fire his coach, he flew to California on Saturday to deliver the news in person. Howson, who is undeniably on the hot seat himself, sought approval from his bosses to make the move and received it.
“He did everything he could,” Howson said of Arniel. “He’s a good coach, he’s a good person. He worked very hard at it and the team was prepared.
“It just didn’t work for him with this group.”
This was supposed to be a season of hope and change for the Blue Jackets. The summer was filled with optimism after centre Jeff Carter was acquired in a trade from Philadelphia and defenceman James Wisniewski inked a US$33-million, six-year contract.
But Wisniewski was suspended eight games stemming from an ugly pre-season hit and Carter fractured his right foot in October as Columbus stumbled out of the gate. The season was essentially lost by the time the team hit the 15-game mark at 2-12-1.
Away from the rink, there was turbulence as well, with agent Allan Walsh publicly criticizing Arniel on Dec. 1 after watching his client Derick Brassard scratched seven times in a 10-game span.
“I don’t think you could have thought about or created a scenario that actually got to this point,” said Richards, who joined the team as an assistant coach in June. “I don’t think you could sit and dream it up.
“Just the things that went on and how we lost games and how it snowballed and manifested into bigger things.”
Arniel’s tenure in Columbus lasted just a season and a half. The 49-year-old compiled a 45-60-18 record in his first job as a NHL head coach.
It will be the second chance for Richards at this level after spending the last two seasons in charge of the Minnesota Wild. The task will be tough with Wisniewski and Carter both on the sidelines with injuries and only pride to play for.
“He’ll bring a fresh approach—a new approach and a new voice,” said Howson. “Again, we’ll try and just move it in the right direction.”
Further changes could be coming in the weeks head. Trade rumours have already swirled around the team and Howson has acknowledged that he’s “open for business” ahead of the Feb. 27 deadline.
Clearly, the status quo won’t be good enough for a franchise that has qualified for the post-season just once in 10 seasons of existence and currently sits 27th in league attendance, with an average of 14,508 fans through 20 games at Nationwide Arena.
The first game under Richards comes Tuesday night in Chicago against the Blackhawks.
“There’s one emotion that’s real prevalent right now and that’s just disappointment,” said Richards. “When somebody has to go, somebody that brought you in as a coach … I think you feel more responsible as an assistant because you’re there to support the head coach and help him out.
“You feel afterwards there’s more you could have done, more you should have done.”
Arniel is the seventh NHL head coach to lose his job this season. The official halfway point passes Monday night.