With Rick Nash, the only franchise player in their brief history on the trading block, the Columbus Blue Jackets are at an NHL crossroads, talking tough but looking timid.
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson stood in front of the media gathered on Thursday, less than an hour after trading his latest expensive mistake, centre Jeff Carter, and awkwardly recited a prepared statement.
“Today, we’ve begun the process of moving forward and rebuilding our team,” the GM said, although his stiff manner and stilted speech did not give the impression of a determined leader.
But who could blame Howson and the rest of the team’s management, president Mike Priest and owner John McConnell, for a bad case of nerves? If they don’t get the Nash trade right – which may not actually happen until the summer given the high price the scoring winger will command – the future of hockey in Columbus may be at stake.
With the NHL’s trade deadline set for Monday at 3 p.m. (EST), the feeling around the Blue Jackets dressing room is that of a way station. Players are coming and going, whether it’s forward Antoine Vermette, traded earlier in the week to the Phoenix Coyotes, or Carter, who went to the Los Angeles Kings, or replacements called up from the AHL farm team.
The head coach, Todd Richards, has an interim tag since he replaced the fired Scott Arniel and some wonder why Howson himself doesn’t, too.
Blue Jackets centre Derick Brassard admits the uncertainty weighs on the players.
“For sure, it’s a tough time of year,” he said. “I can feel tensions between guys. Guys are not really patient right now. They’re anxious to see what’s going to happen on Monday.
“When you don’t have a winning season [18-35-7 heading into Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche], that’s what you expect. You expect change and guys knew that.”
The irony of his own situation is not lost on Brassard, who was taken sixth overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft but has been slow to reach expectations. Not long ago, he was at the top of the list of players expected to be traded but with 20 points in his last 28 games before Friday, Brassard is now the team’s top producer and it is Nash who is poised to leave town.
“A couple of months ago, I was probably going to get dealt,” said the 24-year-old native of Gatineau, Que. “Now, I’m still here, I’m playing good. Hopefully, I’m going to be part of the [rebuild].”
Brassard said he and the rest of the Blue Jackets still hope Nash will be, too.
“Sometimes, I go back home and they say, ‘Oh, you play in the NHL? Who do you play for?’ The Blue Jackets. Some people, will be like, ‘Oh?’
“Then you go, ‘Rick Nash.’ and it’s, ‘Oh, Rick Nash, okay.’ That’s how important he is for our franchise. All the guys, obviously, want him to stay here. He’s our best player.”
The trouble is, if Nash, 27, really can attract the Blue Jackets’ asking price (thought to be a young impact NHL player, one or two top prospects and a first-round draft pick), the chance to use it to create a team good enough to recapture a disaffected fan base – 250 people staged a protest against Jackets management outside the arena one night in January – then it’s too good to pass up.
Since joining the NHL 12 years ago, the Blue Jackets started with much optimism. Through their first four seasons, the team was in the top half of the NHL’s 30 teams in attendance at Nationwide Arena, which seats 18,144 for hockey.
But there’s only been one appearance in the playoffs, a first-round exit in 2008-09. A year or two before that, attendance fell off a cliff, hitting 28th in the league in 2007-08 and it has not recovered. After 30 home games this season, they are 26th in attendance, with an average announced crowd of 14,628.
Those numbers translate into big losses for the McConnell family. As attendance declined, combined with a rising payroll, the annual losses climbed above $20-million (all currency U.S.) for a team that produced tens of millions in profit in its first five seasons.
However, there is relief at hand in the form of a deal between the City of Columbus, Franklin County and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., which owns the arena. The city and county approved a plan to buy the arena from Nationwide for $42.5-million, using money from four casinos planned to open this year. Nationwide, in turn, will hand that money over to the McConnells for a 30-per-cent share of the team and the team will promise not to move for 30 years.
For all that to work, though, the fans need to come back to cut the annual losses. And that’s no sure thing.
Mike Darr, 35, owns two popular pubs in the Arena District, the development of bars and restaurants that sprang up around Nationwide Arena when it was built in a desolate part of downtown. He also owns Blue Jackets season tickets and is a team sponsor.
This season, Darr said, is his “worst ever” in terms of business. The R Bar and the nearby Three Legged Mare are still full on game nights. But at one time, Darr said, he could count on at least 200 fans turning up at the R Bar to watch Blue Jackets’ road games.
“Now, we might get 75 or 100,” Darr said, attributing it directly to the team’s poor play. “They know there’s no hope, the season is over.”
Darr hopes fans will come back to the team if Howson’s makeover succeeds, but he isn’t sure.
“There’s a lot of confusion going on,” he said. “The fans don’t know what they want right now, whether it’s a nuclear option, just blow up the team, or whether we’re five pieces away.
“Columbus is a funny market. It will back a team if it’s winning. They’re so used to Ohio State [University] always winning that losing is not an option.”