Michael Arace commentary: Firing is surprising, but it sends message
The cannon fired yesterday. The shot came out of nowhere, it shook the ground beneath the Blue Jackets, and the report will echo for months to come.
A good case could be made to fire general manager Scott Howson. The clamor to get rid of him had been growing among fans for more than three years, or since Howson sacked coach Ken Hitchcock. The clamor turned to a roar by this time last year, when the Jackets were on their way to the worst season in their history despite a payroll of more than $60 million.
Still, did you see this coming? Did you think Howson would get fired yesterday?
I did not.
John Davidson was brought aboard last October, when he was installed in the newly created post of president of hockey operations. Davidson came over from the St. Louis Blues, for whom he oversaw a major rebuilding project. Part of Davidson’s established expertise is in blending personalities and getting everyone to work together. He is not one to clean house post-haste.
For instance, Davidson retained Larry Pleau as general manager in St. Louis, even though Pleau was supposedly part of the problem there. Why keep him? Pleau is a hockey man of vast experience, he knew the operation and he was, and is, a first-class human being.
One might view Howson in Pleau-like fashion.
Lest we forget, Howson has done a good deal for the franchise. His calm hand was exactly what the franchise needed when he arrived in Columbus in 2007. When captain Adam Foote begged out of town, he maneuvered deftly through the situation. He won trades involving Nikolay Zherdev, Gilbert Brule and Pascal Leclaire, and he presided over the Jackets first and last playoff season, in 2008-09. Back then, he looked like one of the brightest minds in the game.
Howson could have worked well under Davidson. That is why I did not see this coming. Howson has the brains, the expertise and the humility to excel as a right-hand man. Yet, the cannon fired yesterday. The new administration is not 4 months old, and Howson is gone. Boom.
To this point, Davidson has not said much outside of what he has told Dispatch reporter Aaron Portzline last night: “It’s something I said when I got here, that I’d watch and evaluate. I wanted to make a change in that area. I’ve been thinking more and more about it in recent days. It’s a hard thing, but something in my gut I needed to do.”
Again, a good case can be made for the move. Howson’s list of mistakes — Nikita Filatov, Mike Commodore, Jeff Carter — was getting long, not to mention expensive. Howson let Guy Boucher, Paul MacLean and Kevin Dineen get away and somehow chose Scott Arniel as coach. That was a major error, and it was followed by the whole Rick Nash fiasco.
For all of that, Davidson probably had other things in mind when he decided Howson had to go. Davidson has been watching and evaluating, and what did he see? Obviously, something he did not like — probably, something to do with the culture of the place.
This firing will reverberate. Make no mistake about that.
Within the last year, Howson has fired a fleet of scouts, put inexperienced people in positions of power and reconstituted the coaching staff (again). Yesterday brought a ringing pronouncement that no one is safe. It is a major shot across the bow of the organization, signal that an era of business as usual has come to an abrupt end.
The Jackets are entering a critical juncture. Trading season has arrived. The biggest draft in the team’s history — the Jackets have three first-round picks, and possibly the No. 1 overall — is on the horizon. There is a soaring opportunity to build a solid base, but Davidson wants someone other than Howson to formulate and execute a plan. Indications are the new man will be introduced this morning.
To Howson, we bid a fond farewell. To the Jackets, he brought an unremitting class the organization desperately needed, and needs yet.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.