The Scott Howson era is finished in Columbus and nay, there was never a dull moment. As much as he was pilloried by pundits and the general public, this is still the only GM in team history to take the franchise to the playoffs.
Team president John Davidson was brought into the organization to turn around a losing culture, much as he did in St. Louis. The end result there was a Central Division title and 109 points in the standings, the second-best mark in Blues history. Davidson had several reasons to wipe the slate clean by ousting Howson and the history of the now unemployed GM is intertwined with the short, muted story of the Columbus Blue Jackets themselves.
In the movie Traffic, Michael Douglas’ character tells an anecdote about a new leader getting two notes from his predecessor, to be opened when something goes wrong. The first says “blame the guy who came before you.” The second says “sit down and write two notes.”
So let’s look at the hand Howson was dealt when he took over for Doug MacLean in Ohio. In 2005, team scouts wanted to select Anze Kopitar sixth overall in the draft. Kopitar, born and raised in Slovenia, was looked upon with suspicion by some hockey minds because no player had ever come from the tiny European nation. MacLean preferred Gilbert Brule, who had great success in North America with the Western League’s Vancouver Giants, a team coached by the highly esteemed Don Hay. But Kopitar was playing his hockey in Sodertalje, a Swedish team which provided an easy barometer for progress: Kopitar should’ve been viewed no differently than native son Erik Karlsson was years later on Frolunda, or any other Swede, for that matter.
Now imagine Howson inheriting a team that boasts Kopitar and Rick Nash together on the top line (before you make the argument that MacLean wouldn’t have been fired had he drafted Kopitar, recall that the Kings didn’t make the playoffs in their future star’s first NHL season, 2006-07, either. In fact, the GM in L.A. at the time was Dave Taylor, who was also replaced that season by Dean Lombardi). He still likely takes Jakub Voracek seventh overall in the next draft and maybe the young Czech ends up on that line eventually too.
But then history diverges greatly. With no need for a No. 1 center, the ill-fated trade for Jeff Carter at the 2011 draft never happens. Remember: On paper that deal looked decent for Howson. Carter was a former 40-goal scorer with Philadelphia and the eighth pick overall they surrendered was high, but not Phil Kessel-trade high. The problem of course, was that Carter was miserable in Columbus and the Flyers hit paydirt when Sean Couturier – predicted to go No. 1 the year before the draft – slipped to No. 8, where Philadelphia immediately installed him as a shutdown center capable of ruining rival Evgeni Malkin’s 2012 playoffs.
And of course, a Blue Jackets team featuring Kopitar and Nash probably has more success than the one in reality (Brule was ineffective in Columbus and was traded for Raffi Torres, who was traded for Nathan Paetsch and a draft pick). Which means Nash and Howson never have their very public falling-out, leading to the Olympian getting traded to the Rangers.
Which is not to say Howson was a martyr. He fell for the charms of Nikita Filatov in 2008 when fellow forwards Jordan Eberle, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson were still available. He fired the best coach the organization ever had in Ken Hitchcock, a man who not only worked the Jackets hard enough to secure their only playoff berth to date, but also loves the Civil War, the reference point for the Blue Jackets nickname. When Davidson was turning around the Blues, Hitchcock was hired to man the bench and went on to win the Jack Adams Award after taking over for Davis Payne early in the season.
And with a stable of young blueliners such as John Moore and David Savard turning pro, Howson had no coaches with defensive experience in the American League with Springfield.
It always seemed as if Howson was playing catch-up in Columbus. Fortunately for Blue Jackets fans, Davidson doesn’t panic and he has his guy in the GM’s seat now in Jarmo Kekalainen. The team won’t make the playoffs again this season, but the slate is clean and this time the job will be done in the time it takes to do it right.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.
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