By Stu Hackel
There are two ways to evaluate any trade, as Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson reminded everyone on his conference call Monday following the deal that sent Columbus captain Rick Nash to the Rangers. “Any trade gets evaluated initially,” he said, “but the real evaluation comes after a year or two or three, after you see what everybody’s done in their current places.”
Well, the immediate evaluation on the deal overwhelmingly criticized Howson for not getting more in return, a chorus that included my friend and SI.com colleague Adrian Dater and, strangely, the man whose own failures as the first Blue Jackets GM played a large role in their perpetual futility, Doug MacLean (via Twitter), who is now a hockey analyst in Canada.
Of course it may turn out in a few years that the chorus was right and Howson’s deal of Nash, large minor league defenseman Steve Delisle and a conditional third-round selection for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round selection in 2013 turns out poorly for Columbus. But we can’t know that yet. And many of the instant analysts have overlooked some other things when assessing this deal.
First, rather than looking at what Howson didn’t get, let’s look at what he did: If Dubinksy and Anisimov play up to their potentials, this trade would provide the Blue Jackets with added size and depth up front, especially at center, where they were pretty thin after they traded Jeff Carter last winter (and the whole Carter situation was a bad miscalculation by Howson). These are good players, second line talents on a deep Rangers team and have a shot to play larger roles in Columbus. If Erixon pans out as the top four defenseman he’s projected to be, it adds to a pretty strong blueline corps that Howson is trying to assemble. If the first round pick next June snares a solid prospect, that’s a plus too.
Or, if Howson can flip any of them on the trade market and upgrade his club, well, that’s good asset management. That’s what he did with Carter, who didn’t want to be in Columbus, turning him into Jack Johnson, a very talented defenseman who played quite well for the Blue Jackets after arriving in February.
Admittedly, that’s lots of ifs, and you can say that Nash is more of a sure thing than that. Still, when you read tweets like “Rick Nash is heading to The Rangers, and The Columbus Blue Jackets are heading to the AHL,” you know there’s a whole lot of hyperbole goin’ on.
The major reason Howson got torched in the aftermath of the Nash deal was his inability to make it a straight-up hockey trade, a star for a star, the way he did in the Carter-Johnson deal. As Dater rightly points out in his story, “Legendary former Montreal Canadiens GM Sam Pollock once coined the phrase ‘Whichever team gets the best player wins the trade’, and there is little doubt the Rangers, by that standard, won the trade.”
As good as they may be, “Dubi” and “Artie” are not in the same category as Nash when it comes to talent. But after nearly six months of exploring trades with other clubs — and that field of potential trade partners was limited by Nash’s no trade clause — Howson apparently never found any club willing to part with the kind of elite talent he would have liked to land.
He reportedly wanted Logan Couture from San Jose; Jeff Skinner from Carolina, Sean Couturier and/or Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia; Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh or Derek Stepan from the Rangers. None of those teams wanted to make those sorts of star-for-star deals.
(The Red Wings possibly may have offered more talent for Nash but, as Helene St. James of The Detroit Free Press reminds us, Howson was averse to dealing with a division rival. St. James lists Johan Franzen or Valtteri Filppula and Brendan Smith or Gustav Nyquist as names that might have come up in discussion, but Howson and the Blue Jackets fans, who have soured on his tenure anyway — and not without reason — couldn’t stomach the notion of Nash conceivably filling the net behind Blue Jackets goalies six times a season. Those talks weren’t going anywhere.)
It’s well worth asking why Nash wouldn’t fetch a similarly talented player in return. The answer might be that Nash is older than those young stars; or that his $7.8 million salary cap hit for the next six seasons is too much for some clubs to swallow; or the fact that Nash’s NTC excluded teams that would have offered stars from dealing with Howson; or perhaps other GMs may question just how good a player Nash really is.
But the bottom line is that Howson didn’t get a star in return because he couldn’t. He was already dealing from a position of weakness with Nash demanding a trade and holding all the cards when it came to where Howson could move him. You can’t say Howson didn’t try, but the option of making a real hockey trade, “wasn’t there for us,” he said on Monday. “The market played itself out…I’m pleased with the process. I’m glad we waited. It certainly gave us a chance to gauge what the market was.”
In the end, the Rangers were the only team Howson spoke with that gave him a framework to get some of what he wanted — depth up front, especially at center, and a top prospect. The market was less bountiful than Howson hoped so he made the best deal he could. Those who would say it would have gotten better had he waited for one of those “pressure points” when a team might offer more are overlooking the fact that Howson already went through two such pressure points already in trying to deal Nash — the trade deadline and the Entry Draft. Eventually, he had to pull the trigger. Having Nash back in the Blue Jackets’ training camp this September would have presented an unpalitable distraction for a team that really needs to move forward with their latest, and seemingly annual, rebuild — what Howson euphemistically calls a “reshaping.”
For a long time, the Blue Jackets sought a top end center to play with Nash to produce some explosive offense. MacLean wasn’t able to provide one when he ran the show and Howson’s trading for Carter didn’t do it either. No longer building around their star — the only one they’ve ever had — the Blue Jackets’ “shape” now seems to be one of a grittier team up front. Dubinsky will give him that. Anisimov has the size to give him that, although he hasn’t consistently played that way. The shape also includes a pretty decent blueline aggregation with veterans Johnson, James Wisinewski, Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin and Adrian Acoin, plus some good youngsters including the second overall draft pick in June, Ryan Murray. Erixon — another first rounder in 2009, who is smart with the puck and positions himself well without it — might play a role with this group.
When you look at what Howson is trying to accomplish now with the Blue Jackets, the model could be Nashville — or, at least, Nashville before losing Ryan Suter. That means getting offense by committee up front and making it hard for the other team to score. The Blue Jackets, however, don’t have anyone in net to compare with Pekka Rinne in goal — a shortcoming Howson may have time to address with the Nash trade behind him.
As GM, Howson is ultimately responsible for how the team performs and they haven’t done well — just one playoff appearance in his five years in charge. He inherited a mess from MacLean, but it hasn’t gotten dramatically better. The reason Nash wanted out was his desire to compete for the Stanley Cup, not go through another roster cleansing. So Howson bears responsiblity for his star wanting out.
Beside filling holes and maybe trying to deal for another forward, Howson and the entire Blue Jackets organization has a big problem with their disaffected fan base. A segment of them has publicly called for his removal and the atmosphere among them only soured as they watched former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock — who Howson dismissed — transform the division rival Blues into a top team. They probably aren’t happy Howson didn’t catch a star when he cast off Nash, but the trade waters for his best player weren’t very well stocked.
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