Blue Jackets Are Building Slowly, Quietly
That's not to say Howson did nothing. Along with bringing back the bulk of the team -- no easy feat these days -- and acquiring Edmonton captain Ethan Moreau on waivers, Howson also hired a new coaching staff.
Here again, the Blue Jackets were under the radar. The pick for head coach, Scott Arniel, has worked his way up in methodical fashion as a minor-league assistant, an NHL assistant, an AHL head coach and now Columbus, but his name recognition is minimal. The Blue Jackets aren't going for flash, they're going for a stealth approach while trying to get back to playoff-worthy. Few headlines now, with the hope of gaining a few next spring.
"From a player standpoint, we're expecting internal growth and improvement," Howson told FanHouse by phone on Friday when discussing the relatively quiet offseason. "We believe in our young players, we believed they'll be good players in the NHL. Sometimes that doesn't happen right away, but it doesn't shake our confidence."
This, of course, starts with goaltender Steve Mason, who did have it happen right away before a big dropoff; he went from Calder Trophy winner to sophomore flop.
Many believe that if Arniel spiffs things up from a defensive standpoint that Mason will bounce back well this year, and Howson pointed out that Mason's numbers got better as last season rolled along. He was particularly good in February and April -- although those were months in which he made only four starts.
"He lost a little of his confidence," Howson said. "He probably didn't have the summer of conditioning he should have had, things snowballed and he couldn't rein it in. But if you look at his numbers in the second half, they were not that dissimilar from the year before, so he got it back by the end of the year."
Back in the fold is 2008 top pick Nikita Filatov, a 20-year-old left wing who was loaned back to the KHL last year, unhappy with his playing time. Howson sounded enthusiastic about Filatov's early arrival in Columbus; he showed up six weeks early and he is in great shape, according to Howson.
"He's got to earn a spot on the team," Howson said, "but he's a tremendously talented, dynamic offensive player."
With a young team, including star and captain Rick Nash, who is 26, Moreau should add some experience and veteran know-how. Howson expects that Moreau will play on the third line, the checking line, and he'll be valuable in penalty-killing situations. Howson pointed out that Chris Clark also is a former team captain, with the Capitals, so Columbus won't be lacking in leadership.
That should be helpful for a first-year coach such as Arniel. Howson describes the other Scott as a "really sincere person," and he cited his passion for the game and his success at Manitoba as big pluses. He expects the Blue Jackets to be something of a puck-possession team now, rather than dump-and-chase, though Arniel is likely to provide some leeway, at least early on, as long as it's warranted.
As always, Columbus' biggest difficulty might be geographic. The team is in a tough division that includes the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks and perennial contender Detroit. Howson calls St. Louis and Nashville improved. That might make the playoffs a tough task for a team that hasn't made any major upgrades after failing to make the postseason last year.
There were talks about Kaberle, Howson acknowledged. It's widely thought that Toronto was looking for top prospects and picks, and while Howson didn't speak in specifics, he said, "We exchanged some thoughts on a number of occasions. It never really looked like we had anything."