Two NHL franchises under siege responded in opposite ways this week.
In St. Louis and Columbus, the fires are raging because the teams are supposed to be young and on their way up, but both are in a death spiral. The Blue Jackets are last overall with a 2-11-1 record and the confidence of that young team is in tatters, while the Blues are one spot ahead of the Jackets at 14th in the Western Conference with a 6-7 record.
Both squads have goaltending issues.
Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets has a big contract and small results. He has a 3.70 goals-against average and .869 save percentage and has never matched the 2.29 GAA and .916 save percentage he posted as a rookie in 2008-09. The Blue Jackets have no depth at that position, which is why Mason has appeared in every game this season but one.
In St. Louis, Jaroslav Halak is just as bad. He’s 1-6 with a 3.35 GAA and a similarly embarrassing .856 save percentage. But backup goaltender Brian Elliott is surprisingly good (5-1, 1.72 GAA, .941 save percentage).
So why was it the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne and hired Ken Hitchcock, while the Blue Jackets stood pat? (Columbus fired Hitchcock as its coach in February of 2010, and he was still under contract there for the rest of this season at $1.3-million U.S.)
After all, aside from the goaltender issue, both teams’ other problems look similar. Both have lots of underachievers and both are under intense pressure to make the playoffs. The Blues have not been in the playoffs since 2009, and only made the postseason once since 2004. The Blue Jackets have one brief playoff appearance in their 11-year history (2009 under Hitchcock).
Scratch the surface, though, and the Blues’ troubles are more severe.
They list their average per-game attendance as 19,150, fifth in the NHL, but those fans do not bring in a lot of revenue. NHL insiders say there are a lot of ticket giveaways and discounts because the team’s rebuilding efforts are dragging on and the owners are desperate to woo an increasingly disaffected fan base.
Incoming owner Matthew Hulsizer is well-aware of these problems and signed off on the coaching move. He needed to be seen as part of the solution.
In Columbus, attendance may only be an average of 13,000 – 27th in the NHL – but the Blue Jackets have a little more breathing room. The city recently bought Nationwide Arena and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. injected some cash into the operation.
Columbus general manager Scott Howson may be under as much pressure as Jackets coach Scott Arniel, but he is standing pat for now (at considerable risk to his job) for a couple of reasons.
One, injuries and suspensions played a role in the club’s awful start. Jeff Carter, the No. 1 centre who was brought in at great expense, is still on the sidelines and defenceman James Wisniewski was out for the first eight games because of a suspension. The team is also missing two of its top four defencemen.
Two, the only thing the Blue Jackets have been known for in their short history is upheaval. They’ve had five head coaches and almost as many interim head coaches. One more firing is not going to help much when you don’t have a goaltender and no GM is about to do you any favours in a trade for one, either.
So the rampant speculation Hitchcock was about to replace Arniel was off-target.
In the end, the Jackets get the rest of Hitchcock’s contract off the books and he goes to St. Louis, where he has a long history with Blues GM Doug Armstrong (both worked for the Dallas Stars).