Columbus Blue Jackets: Appeasing the Fans, or an Appetite for Reconstruction?

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Columbus Blue Jackets:  Appeasing the Fans, or an Appetite for Reconstruction?
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John P. McConnell, the Columbus Blue Jackets majority team owner, spoke to the media last week:

http://www.bluejacketsxtra.com/live/content/sports/stories/2011/03/31/jackets-owner-looks-for-answers.html?sid=101

Mr. McConnell, who unlike his father, the late John H. McConnell, has, to date, preferred to avoid the spotlight and quietly allow those entrusted to run the organization to perform their duties.  That is, until now.

Another season of great disappointment from the Blue Jackets, the result of an ill-timed freefall at the worst possible time of the season - a 3-12-7 record in their last 22 games, at a time when they previously were in contention for the Western Conference playoff race, along with mounting financial losses and an almost certain, material drop in season ticket sales (Full Season Equivalents - FSEs), has prompted the quiet owner to proclaim that every aspect of the organization will be evaluated.

If you recall, the Blue Jackets experienced a 25 percent drop in FSEs over the past off-season.  So, their listless finish and the perceived belief amongst their fan-base, from Blue Jackets management, that sub-mediocrity is to be accepted by the fans should result in an additional, if not greater, plummet in season ticket sales.  Thus, a signal had to be sent that the status quo can be tolerated no longer.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

While this proclamation sounds encouraging, I personally recall that his father, John H. McConnell, offered an annual, end of season apology to the faithful as to the results of another disastrous season.  And while such results could be tolerated in their infancy, similar tolerance will no longer be accepted, especially not at this stage.  Not after ten seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL), not after some of their sister expansion franchises – the Nashville Predators (1998-1999), who will have now made the playoffs in six of their last seven seasons, and the Minnesota Wild (2000-2001, the same year the Blue Jackets entered the NHL) have made the playoffs on three occasions over the same period of existence.

The Blue Jackets needs remain, even after ten seasons:  A lack of a top-line center, the lack of a top pair of defensemen, the lack of a reliable franchise goaltender.  But the Blue Jackets also have needs that extend beyond the talent on the ice:  a team who exhibits fragility in the face of obstacles and a team who continues to exhibit a leadership void.  To that last point, if this is not the case, then surely Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson would not have obtained over the past two seasons three former team captains from other NHL teams:  Craig Rivet (formerly the Buffalo Sabres captain), Chris Clark (Washington Capitals) and Ethan Moreau (Edmonton Oilers).

So, what can you believe if you’re a Blue Jackets fan, that long-needed changes will finally occur, or that this proclamation is merely a Public Relations move in an attempt to salvage an otherwise greater loss in FSEs?

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Well, from my view, I’m greeting Mr. McConnell’s statements with skepticism. 

I’ve seen Scott Howson’s ill-fated decision that leaving the 4th worst team in the NHL in-tact entirely based on the assumption that a new head coach and new assistant coaches, with a new system, would be the panacea for success result in the team with the 7th worst record in the NHL.  Worse yet, I’ve seen no explicit pressure on Scott Howson that his job has ever, nor will ever, be in jeopardy.

I’ve seen Blue Jackets President, Mike Priest, give Scott Howson not only one, but two, staunch votes of confidence for the on-ice results, something ousted former head coach Ken Hitchcock, a future Hall-of-Fame coach, was never afforded, in spite of guiding them to their only playoff appearance.

I’ve seen no indications that changes would ever be made in either the scouting – Don Boyd remains the director of player personnel – or player development – Tyler Wright is the director of player development – areas that remain two of the Blue Jackets greatest Achilles heels. 

I’ve seen an organization that is in a schism, between a pre-lockout and a post-lockout organizational-direction model.  I’ve seen an organization that, while improved, has failed to develop NHL-ready stars from their developmental system, in spite of drafting no lower than in the 8th position for nine of its previous ten NHL entry drafts.  I’ve seen an organization that has only seen one 2nd round draft selection play at the NHL level for any substantial period of time (Dan Fritsche).

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I’ve seen an organization fail to provide their only elite player, Rick Nash, with sufficient top-line talent to succeed with.

So, forgive me for having this level of skepticism that a complete overhaul of the organization will occur in the off-season.  Should such an overhaul occur?  Absolutely – Will it occur?  We will all find out in the coming months.

But, if these are indeed false promises, expect the fan-base to respond in the only manner they can respond – by staying away in even greater numbers.

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