There has been a lot of commotion in #CBJ-land the last few days over the protest to be held at Nationwide Arena this weekend. I’ve mostly stayed quiet on this topic, as the protest seems very absurd to me. Among the problems are the time and location (at a place void of any decision makers or fans on this particular date), as well as the targets of the protest. The protest is aimed at convincing Blue Jackets ownership to fire President Mike Priest and General Manager Scott Howson. The problem is that this will not solve the issues facing the Blue Jackets.
Say what you will about Scott Howson, but I still believe he is a good GM and should oversee the rebuild of the roster. Similarly, I believe Mike Priest may be a competent businessman who is well suited to running a major company. Both have taken a lot of heat for decisions that were made under their command, and rightfully so. However, little attention has been paid to those around Priest and Howson who are supposed to help them with these decisions. In Aaron Portzline’s scathing article the other day, he mentioned the lack of experience in the Columbus front office. He was on the right track, but he did not take this idea far enough.
In my opinion, the relative inexperience of the Blue Jackets hockey operations staff is what has crippled this team on the ice. Many fans have clamoured for a “hockey guy” to take Mike Priest’s role as President. However, the NHL has grown too advanced for most “hockey guys.” There are far too many parts of running a team to put a former General Manager, with no business experience, in charge a multimillion dollar company. For evidence of how this can go wrong, just revisit the Doug MacLean era. The team is still paying for his mistakes, and will be for probably another decade (or at least until Anze Kopitar retires).
No, a businessman like Mike Priest is who should be in charge. However, he needs someone advising him on the hockey side of the team. This is where Craig Patrick should come in. His role should be to advise Priest on hockey matters, and provide Howson with someone to bounce ideas off of. This would provide the President’s office with both the business and hockey know-how. Now I am not familiar enough with Priest’s work to say whether or not he is the right guy for the job, but he is more what is needed as President than someone like Patrick.
As for Howson, I believe the GM of an NHL team in the salary cap era should be someone like Scott Howson. He is a lawyer, who views running a hockey team from an asset management perspective. This is the right approach to long-term success, and has proven so based on the success of many other teams that have taken this approach. The problem is that Howson is relatively inexperienced on the talent evaluation side. Were Howson surrounded with hockey veterans providing opinions based on decades of experience, this would not be a problem. Instead, the Blue Jackets front office is filled with rookies. There are more law degrees in their front office than there are ex-NHL players. Disregarding Craig Patrick and the basic scouts, the other eight members of their hockey operations staff have a combined nine years of pre-Blue Jackets NHL front office experience (seven from Scott Howson) and eight years of scouting experience (all from Paul Castron). The rest of the people that Howson has to lean on for insight received their first NHL front office job from the Blue Jackets.
Matt Wagner at the Cannon compared the dearth of experience in Columbus to the four former GM’s employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is a good comparison, but what he doesn’t mention is the crux of why these issues are not Priest or Howson’s fault. Money. This all comes down to money. As I mentioned, most of the Blue Jackets front office started out with the Blue Jackets. Howson is a first time GM. Assistant GM Chris MacFarland got his first job in Columbus. Director of Amatuer Scouting Tyler Wright was in player development with the Blue Jackets straight from playing in the NHL, and had never written a single scouting report before this season. Compare those men to Dave Nonis, Rick Dudley and Cliff Fletcher. In terms of hockey knowledge, it’s a landslide in favour of Toronto. That knowledge also costs a hell of a lot more. Just like any business, it is much cheaper to hire someone for their first job than to bring in someone with a wealth of experience. This is where ownership comes in.
Scott Howson and Mike Priest have a budget to work with. How much of that budget is spent on the hockey operations staff comes from Priest and the owners. It’s likely that those three aforementioned Maple Leafs staff members make as much as the entire Blue Jackets hockey operations staff combined. It’s also likely that Scott Howson, as a rookie GM, is one of the lowest paid General Managers in the league. The amount of money spent on hockey operations staff severely handcuffs how much experience Scott Howson can surround himself with. The Blue Jackets are currently operating without a Director of Player Personnel, Director of Pro Scouting or Director of Hockey Operations, positions occupied by hockey veterans in most organizations. Scott Howson is the General Manager and Vice President of Hockey Operations. The Maple Leafs have two Vice Presidents of Hockey Operations, neither of whom are Brian Burke. It would be very simple for the Blue Jackets to hire four hockey veterans, as the Director of Player Personnel, Director of Pro Scouting, Director of Hockey Operations and Vice President of Hockey Operations. Craig Patrick would stay on as Special Advisor, and this new team would provide the advice that Mike Priest and Scott Howson have needed. Only then can we truly judge whether these men are worthy of their positions. If this protest is successful, all that will be accomplished is running two men out of town who will undoubtedly be replaced by similar people, with similar inexperience, and surrounded by a similarly inexperienced hockey operations department. In other words, the problem won’t be solved, just covered in a different coat of paint.