By Ryan Lambert
The long-awaited Rick Nash trade finally came down on Monday and it turned out that Scott Howson got a decent enough return for his face-of-the-franchise former Rocket Richard winner.
Of course, he was lambasted for it. Part of that is because it's really easy and kind of required by custom to trash anything he does. The simple fact is he managed an NHL team that had designs on making the playoffs for years to come — see what he gave up in the Jeff Carter trade and the ridiculous contract for James Wisniewski as evidence thereof — into the ground in just over a calendar year. No Jeff Carter, no Rick Nash, no hope of being good in the next few seasons.
The cries for his job that have been echoing around Columbus and in fact the entire league didn't get much quieter as a result of the four "ifs" he acquired for Nash. Granted, Howson was constrained significantly by Nash's ability to dictate the teams to which he could be dealt, but nonetheless, this was not a good day at the ballpark by the GM's own definition. He wanted a home run. He got a solid double to the gap that plated a pair.
But at the same time, Howson may have also built a fairly decent young roster that, while it probably won't be able to win much more than 30 or so games this season, could actually be half decent in a few years. Whether this was an accident is, one supposes, up for interpretation. Nonetheless, guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Derick Brassard, Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov, Nikita Nikitin, Tim Erixon, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Jack Johnson, Allen York, and so forth are all decent enough players and all could, approximately, be called young. This isn't anything world-beating by any stretch of the imagination but it is, at least, something to start with.
And that's why they have to fire Scott Howson immediately.
There were a few reports after that whole disaster last season that Howson wouldn't be fired by Columbus' higher-ups, likely in the same way judges on courtroom dramas say "I want to see where he's going with this," as counsel goes spectacularly off the rails with a witness. Howson has somehow been given the chance to dig himself out from this mess he created all by himself, but it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him bash himself in the face with the shovel a few times before really getting after it in earnest.
Having colossally screwed even the slightest attempt at "going for it," to use Jay Feaster's favorite term, Howson can't have the keys going forward. Case in point: He got Los Angeles' first-round pick in 2013 along with Jack Johnson in exchange for Jeff Carter — not the best trade-off considering what he gave up just months earlier — but rumors over the weekend said he could be required to ship that back to the Kings if a trade for Jonathan Bernier were to come to fruition.
This is, of course, after saying that he was content to enter the season with Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky as his goaltenders. That in itself shows he has a complete lack of judgment on the subject of what is an acceptable goaltending tandem, as if last year's faith in Mason wasn't enough evidence. But to then throw away a pick on an unproven netminder like Bernier, whose even-strength save percentage last season was an appalling .901 (worse than Jonas Gustavsson's) on an appreciably better team.
In no way should this man be allowed to oversee a worst-in-the-league team's efforts at even a modest rebuild. He's been running the Blue Jackets since 2007, when Doug MacLean got the axe, and in that time made the postseason with a team he largely inherited thanks to a freakishly good and as-it-turns-out uncharacteristic start from Mason, then a rookie. Since then, well, it hasn't gone well. Five fifth-place finishes in a division that is, admittedly, not easy to win against. But more to the point, has gotten actively worse in that time.
What's more, prior to this latest draft, Hockey's Future had the Blue Jackets' system ranked a stunning 29th out of 30, ahead of only the San Jose Sharks. Of course, that's probably because the latter team picked in the top 15 just once since 2006, thanks to all that winning they've been doing. Columbus, well, their best season in that time (okay, ever) saw them earn a whopping 92 points.
Repeatedly awful team? Bad drafting? Howson is, to put it nicely, demonstrably bad at his job. This was his chance to make up ground against those who would nay-say his efforts, which is to say "everyone."
He turned down Rangers offers at the deadline and draft that were arguably better than the one he eventually settled for (the sticking point being whether you prefer Artem Anisimov to a pair of prospects) and took on money to offload his franchise's only good player ever. This after basically asking for the moon in all negotiations, which he was more than happy to make extraordinarily public. No one would think he got ripped off in the Nash deal if he hadn't done that, and even when the Rangers were desperate to get the star winger over fears that Shea Weber could be smothering their forwards for the next 14 years, he failed to command any kind of better return.
There's simply no clear indication of the plan Howson has in mind. He's clearly happy to roll a top-six next season of R.J. Umberger, Brassard, Atkinson, Vinny Prospal, Anisimov and Dubinsky. That is, somehow, a worse top-six than Calgary rolled last year, and the Flames actually had a good goaltender behind them. His insistence on obtaining NHL talent — hence his decision to nix the earlier Ranger offers — seems ill-founded.
That's the reason you can't let him clean up his own mess. It's impossible to guess either if or when he'll trade one of his team's few decent prospects and a lottery pick for Ales Hemsky, but really, do you want to take that chance? Worse things have already happened.
Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy. Follow him on Twitter or whatever.