October 19, 2011

Tough Times, Tough Questions

This is bad. And the timing couldn't be worse. First, GM Scott Howson goes out and opens the team's wallet to snag top-tier talent. The fan base rejoiced. Then came news that city officials would help the financially troubled team by allowing Nationwide Arena to be purchased with casino revenue. Great! But before anyone could even open their box of Crackerjacks and relish in the start of what looked to be a competitive NHL season, a very unfunny thing happened. The Blue Jackets forgot how to win.

I realized just how bad things were on Sunday night when I sent a tweet out indicating that I was at a concert seeing my favorite band and I felt compelled to qualify that my message was not about the Blue Jackets.

Twitter / @gregin120: Widespread Panic (not a #C ... via kwout

How bad is bad? Bad enough that Scott Arniel should be very worried. At some point, Arniel has to be thinking about walking into the locker room and, with a nod to former NFL coach Jerry Glanville, addressing his troops with something like this:
"Guys, this is the NHL. That stands for Not Here Long when you play like this. I'll be bagging groceries."
Everyone remembers that two years ago, 58 games removed from the first playoff appearance in team history, the Blue Jackets fired the man that led them there, the venerable Ken Hitchcock. Why? After starting 12-6-2, the Blue Jackets imploded during a 24 game stretch that saw their playoff chances evaporate (realistically) before New Year's Eve. During that brutal run the Blue Jackets compiled a record of just 3-14-7, including a nine game winless streak from December 10 through December 26 during which Hitchcock's Jackets went 0-7-2.

The Blue Jackets have opened the 2011-12 campaign on a six game winless streak at 0-5-1. If you want to go back to last season the steak is 12 games. In fact, during the last 24 games dating back to March 7 of last season, Arniel's record is 3-14-7, exactly the same as what Hitch posted during his fateful tailspin. Now consider that Hitch won 532 NHL games, coached in over a thousand of them and won a Stanley Cup. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. Guys like Hitch generally come with an extra long leash. Guys on their first NHL gig generally do not.

Some fans will say that it isn't Arniel's fault. A good number of people said it wasn't Hitch's fault. He still got fired. And history suggests that if this team continues on it's current trajectory over the next 10-15 games Arniel will be fired too. That doesn't mean he's a bad coach or a bad guy. It's just the way it works when things don't work. Howson said so himself when he fired Hitch. 
"It wasn't working," Howson said. "The team wasn't responding to the message."
Arniel's message was puck-possession and energy. Fans have yet to see much of either, and the results look very familiar. The Blue Jackets are not scoring enough goals to win. It should be noted that four of the Jackets' losses this season have been by a single goal. They have outshot they're opponents in four of their six games (and tied Vancouver in another). So, is this team close to getting over the hump or is the gap wider than it appears? That is the question, isn't it?

And while Arniel's seat has got be feeling a wee bit toasty, so too does Howson's. Many people around the league surmised that Howson's acquisition of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski amounted to his last stand in Columbus. Will ownership allow Howson to make a coaching change when his own status may in fact be in doubt? Will we see another "interim" head coach? Will his name be Todd Richards?

These are all difficult questions, the kind that nobody in Columbus wants to be discussing right now. Recent history - and a tremendous sense of urgency - leaves us no choice.

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