October 30, 2011
The Columbus Blue Jackets dropped to 1-9-1 on the season with a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. Every time you think this team has hit rock bottom, they grab a jackhammer and tumble deeper.
This catastrophe stretches back to last season, as the Blue Jackets are 4-21-8 in their last 33 games. Coach Scott Arniel hasn't been able to turn this team around. GM Scott Howson, despite big summer acquisitions in Jeff Carter(notes) and James Wisniewski(notes), is being criticized for the construction of the roster — one that's produced three points on the season, despite having the fifth-highest payroll in the NHL.
By Monday, they could both be gone, according to a report in the Columbus Dispatch — with former coach Ken Hitchcock back behind the bench in a desperation move.
Multiple NHL sources have informed The Dispatch early Sunday that Jackets president Mike Priest has contacted Ken Hitchcock about returning as the club's coach, and that former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button has been contacted about taking on the same job with the Jackets.
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson and/or coach Scott Arniel could be replaced by Monday, the sources indicated. At the very least, Button, Hitchcock — and potentially other head coach or general manager candidates who may have been contracted — have been put on high alert this weekend.
Button and Hitchcock worked closely together with Dallas Stars in the 1990s. Button was the director of player personnel, and Hitchcock the coach, when the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999. Hitchcock is still under contract with the Blue Jackets, due to make $1.33 million this season in the final year of his deal. He has watched several Blue Jackets games and practices with Priest and Howson already this season, and has maintained a residence near Nationwide.
(UPDATE: Button said on Twitter Sunday morning: "While it's flattering to be mentioned in GM rumors, I've had no contact with Columbus. I wish Scott H. the best to turn things around.")
Priest gave Arniel and Howson a vote of confidence last week, but what else could he say? After Howson's "Stand and Fight" battle cry resulted in a single victory and nothing more, perhaps conditions changed. (Or, to be cynical about this: Perhaps the Hitchcock news is out to see if it lights a fire under the players. Because almost nothing else has.)
Swapping out Arniel for Hitchcock makes sense: Jacques Lemaire showed last season with the New Jersey Devils that a veteran coach can return to his old team, provide confidence and structure, and lead it back from the abyss. Plus, like Lemaire with the Devils, he's already on the Columbus payroll.
Swapping out Howson for Button or any other GM would be an acknowledgement that this franchise is on the wrong course, and that's a devastating acknowledgement given the work Howson's done since 2007.
Rick Nash(notes) is signed through 2018. Carter's signed through 2022. Howson signed RJ Umberger(notes) and James Wisniewski through 2017. Fedor Tyutin(notes) is signed through 2018. Next year's Blue Jackets have $49.3 million committed to 15 players, according to Cap Geek. Howson has put a long-term plan in place; firing him says it's the wrong plan.
General managers are rarely fired during the season in the NHL, at least in comparison to coaches. It did happen last season with Darryl Sutter of the Calgary Flames, however. (Oh, right: He "stepped down.")
The Blue Jackets host the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday evening. This report should make for an interesting day at the rink, huh?