I was prepared to defend Scott Howson right through Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline. Then the Columbus GM stepped to the podium after it was over, opened his mouth and praise-proofed himself in the saga of the Blue Jackets’ now forever-fractured relationship with franchise cornerstone Rick Nash.
That’s not to say Howson was wrong to not pull the trigger on a Nash trade. He had every right as the architect of the franchise to put the team’s needs above those of the player. If he couldn’t find a package that served the Jackets’ needs, he was under no obligation to ship the star right winger to a contending team. But to come out at his post-deadline news conference and paint a large black villain’s moustache on to Nash’s face – by revealing it was the player, and not the team, who asked that he be traded – Howson undid all the good he’d done by holding on to his biggest asset.
Perhaps Howson was forced by majority owner John P. McConnell or team president Mike Priest to feed Nash to the wolves by pulling back the curtain on the situation. Regardless, the decision to do so will leave a lasting stink around the team, one sure to be noticed by players and their agents who might have considered signing with the Jackets until they saw how management deals with employees who grow tired of losing.
As I argued in November, moving Nash out of Columbus is the best thing for the franchise. He gave that team all sorts of time to build a winner around him and the team failed. If you had a marriage that looked like it had lots of promise, but stunk to high heaven for the better part of nine years, you’d be right in asking for a divorce.
Moreover, Columbus’ rebuild can be accelerated greatly by the haul Nash will bring on the trade market. The combination of top-round draft picks, elite prospects and NHL-ready young players that would come in return for him is exactly what is needed for a team that never has had a great balance of production at all three positions.
Howson began addressing that problem with the miraculous trade of ol’ sourpuss Jeff Carter to Los Angeles. He landed blueliner Jack Johnson – who instantly appears to be the most skilled defenseman with the most upside in team history – as well as a first round draft pick for the NHL’s equivalent of Debbie Downer. If that were the sole move Howson made before the deadline, it would have represented a huge step forward for Columbus.
However, after that ill-planned press conference, Howson has ensured he won’t get value for Nash, whom he’ll almost assuredly trade by the 2012 NHL draft. For starters, Nash still controls his destination, thanks to his no-trade clause. Do you imagine he’s feeling generous toward Howson right now? Do you think he’s willing to increase the number of teams he’d accept a deal to? And most importantly, do you think opposition GMs are going to be charitable toward Columbus in the talent they’re willing to give up knowing full well Howson is on the clock for a Nash deal?
I don’t. I wouldn’t blame Nash and his agent Joe Resnick if they shortened their list of teams (from the five or six he is reported to have submitted to Howson when he made his trade request in late January) he’d play for. If Jackets brass is indicating it’s going to play out the rest of this story with its gloves off, Nash’s camp has every right to return the organization’s collective death stare with one of its own and its knuckles bared. Look back through NHL history – including recent history with unhappy stars such as Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk – and it’s clear teams rarely, if ever, win these battles. If Howson wants to continue this game of chicken up to and throughout training camp next season, the team will suffer much more than Nash does.
I can accept that Howson might have been angered by Resnick making public Nash’s willingness to move a few days before the deadline. In many regards, it undoubtedly felt good to give an honest accounting of how Nash came to be on the block. But Howson could have just as easily bit his lip and saved the truth telling for after Nash had departed.
Because he chose not to, the Blue Jackets and their beleaguered fan base will be poorer for it.
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