COLUMBUS, Ohio – Scott Arniel was interested in the Columbus Blue Jackets even before they showed any interest in him.
Arniel, introduced as the Blue Jackets new head coach on Tuesday, said of the four NHL teams who were looking for a head coach in recent weeks, he singled out the Blue Jackets.
“I had a big circle around Columbus,” he said at the news conference announcing his hiring. “I thought it was the perfect fit for me at this time.
The 47-year-old Arniel was the head coach of Manitoba of the American Hockey League for the past four seasons. He succeeds interim coach Claude Noel, who took over on Feb. 3 when Ken Hitchcock was fired.
Arniel takes over a young team that took a step backward a year ago after making its first trip to the NHL playoffs.
Arniel was offered the job on Monday, shortly after it was turned down by Hamilton Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher.
General manager Scott Howson phoned Arniel on Monday afternoon. Arniel thought the call was to tell him that Boucher had been hired.
“When I got the call yesterday, I thought it was going to be the ‘thanks for coming’ speech,'” he said with a laugh. “But it was the other way. It did kind of floor me. But I jumped in my car and drove to my wife’s business. My son met me over there. I just said to her, ‘I don’t have anything to wear.’ She didn’t know what I was talking about and I said, ‘I’ve got to go to Columbus tomorrow.’ And they both came out of their shoes.”
The Blue Jackets are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, led by right wing Rick Nash, who turns 26 on June 16, and 22-year-old goaltender Steve Mason. The club has a solid core of 20-something players, also including Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger, Jake Voracek and Derick Brassard. But after going 41-31-10 (92 points) for the franchise’s first winning record and making the playoffs two years ago, the Blue Jackets sagged to 32-35-15 (79 points) this past season.
Arniel has a reputation of working well with young players, and his teams don’t give up many goals.
“He’s had a winning tradition there in Manitoba,” said Mason, the NHL’s Calder Trophy winner two years ago as rookie of the year. “The fact that he’s played in the league, and coached there, it gives some instant respect from the players in our locker-room.”
Arniel led Manitoba to a 181-105-10-19 record in his tenure. This past season, the Moose went 40-33-2-1 and were fourth in the AHL’s Western Conference. They lost in six games of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against Hamilton—coached by Boucher.
While at Manitoba, Arniel’s teams were known for playing hard, being stingy on defence and able to play a variety of styles. They won at least 40 games each season, including a franchise-record 50 in 2008-09, when he was also selected as the coach of the year in the AHL. He took the Moose all the way to the Calder Cup finals.
Arniel had a solid career as a player. He was a member of Canada’s first gold medal-winning World Juniors team and was selected in the second round, 22nd overall, in the 1981 NHL draft by the Winnipeg Jets. He played in 406 games in two stints with the Jets between 1981 and 1991. His best season was 1983-84 when he had 21 goals and 35 assists in 80 games. A forward who also saw action with Buffalo and Boston, he totalled 149 goals and 189 assists in 730 games in 12 seasons.
He was an assistant for two years in Manitoba before working with the Buffalo Sabres from 2002-06.
Arniel won praise during his time under Lindy Ruff in Buffalo for energizing the Sabres’ power play, helping to make it one of the best in the NHL.
“He’s paid the price. He’s worked hard in organizations, and I think he’s going to do a tremendous job,” Ruff said Tuesday.
Howson said he thought Arniel had the tools, personally and on the roster, to turn things around quickly.
“It’ll be up to him to get the most out of the players,” Howson said. “I certainly believe he can do that.”
The Blue Jackets players were open to a new coach and a new direction.
“I think it’s a good fit. Do I know him as a person? No. Do I know a whole lot about him? I know he’s done well, he was well-liked as an assistant with Buffalo,” defenceman Mike Commodore said. “His time has come for him to get a shot, and I hope it works out. I hope it works out great.”
Former Blue Jackets player Kevin Dineen, who also worked in the club’s player-development office, was also a candidate. So was Noel, who was 10-8-6 as interim coach aftertaking over when Hitchcock was fired.
AP Sports Writers Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, N.C., and John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.