It’s interesting the way two NHL franchises under siege responded this week.
In both St. Louis and Columbus, the fires are raging because both 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 teams have goaltending issues. The Blue Jackets’ Steve Mason 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 that prompted general manager Scott Howson to reward him with that fat contract. The problem is, the Blue Jackets have no depth at that position, which is why Mason 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. The difference is backup goaltender Brian Elliott is surprisingly good. He is 5-1 with a 1.72 GAA and .941 save percentage.
The trouble is, too many of the Blues’ skaters are under-achievers, like Chris Stewart (three points) and Patrik Berglund (five points).
So why was it the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne and hired Ken Hitchcock, while the Blue Jackets stood pat? And not only that, the Blues took Hitchock, who was under contract in Columbus for the rest of this season at $1.3-million (all currency U.S.), away from the Blue Jackets.
After all, aside from the goaltender issue, the teams’ other problems look similar. Both have no shortage of under-achievers who have big contracts and both are under intense pressure to make the playoffs. The Blues have not been in the playoffs since 2009 and only made the post-season once since 2004. The Blue Jackets have one brief playoff appearance in their 11-year history.
Scratch the surface, though, and the Blues’ troubles are more severe. They may list their average 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 giveaways and discounts with Blues tickets 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 moves.
In Columbus, attendance may only be an average of 13,000, 27th in the NHL, and the owners are certainly tired of losing gobs of money but the Blue Jackets have a little more breathing room. The city recently agreed to buy Nationwide Arena and Nationwide Insurance agreed to buy a piece of the Blue Jackets and inject a chunk of cash into the operation. In exchange, the team pledged not to move for a long time.
Howson may be under as much pressure as Jackets head coach Scott Arniel, but he is standing pat for now (at considerable risk to his job) for a couple of reasons. One is that injuries and suspensions played a role in the 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 lost for the first eight games because of a suspension. The team is also missing two of its top four defencemen.
Another reason is 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 despite the rampant speculation Hitchcock, who is working off his contract after being one of those fired Blue Jackets coaches, was about to replace Arniel was off-target. And Hitchcock does have a long history with Blues GM Doug Armstrong when both worked for the Dallas Stars.