Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meddling ownership will cost Arniel job

Another loss might be it for Blue Jackets' coach

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- During his days as head coach of the Manitoba Moose, Scott Arniel used to say he wouldn't take the first NHL job that came his way but would wait for the right one to come along. He should have waited a little longer.

Arniel was hired in the summer of 2010 as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets by GM Scott Howson. On the surface it looked like a good fit, a young GM ready to rebuild a franchise and a rookie coach with a reputation for working well with prospects at the AHL level.

Fast-forward one season and a bit and both men are on the firing line. It's become obvious there are non-hockey people pulling the strings on hockey decisions in Columbus.

Columbus Dispatch hockey writer Aaron Portzline reported Sunday that Arniel and Howson could be fired any day now. Portzline is well connected with ownership in Columbus and there's no reason to believe his report isn't valid.

But that doesn't make it the right call.

Firing either or both of these men isn't going to fix what's wrong in Columbus, where the real issues reside above the GM.

It's always easy to tell when a non-hockey person is meddling with a franchise and the trade-and-sign deal for James Wisniewski by the Blue Jackets this off-season set off alarm bells.

Howson has a reputation for patience and the Wisniewski deal, a terrible waste of money and cap room, had ownership written all over it. Wisniewski was signed to a six-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million. Wow. Last season he had 10 goals and 41 assists playing with the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. A nice season to be sure, but the Blue Jackets vastly overpaid for him. The move smacked of desperation and was one Howson would not have made if not pushed from above.

Much like the rush job Columbus pulled with first-round pick Nikita Filatov, who became disenchanted with the team and was traded last summer to the Ottawa Senators. Filatov was mishandled from Day 1 and never got off the ground. Ownership wanted a splash but all they got was wet.

There are no shortcuts in the NHL. Arniel likely knows this better than anyone these days, but the people he works for still haven't grasped this fact of pro hockey life.

"That's a three-to-five-year rebuilding job and until someone can convince ownership of that the franchise will struggle... and that's a terrible job for a coach," said one NHL executive on Sunday. "They're not making the playoffs this year, that ship has sailed. They need to step back and start fresh. The odd thing is they probably have the right people in place to make that happen but they won't let them do their jobs."

The Blue Jackets team Arniel inherited just over a season ago was a non-playoff club and Ken Hitchcock was fired for not making them one. Arniel was brought in to bring fresh ideas and new life to the franchise, but that hasn't transpired and the club was 1-9-1 on the season heading into Sunday night's match with the Anaheim Ducks.

The rumour mill has Hitchcock, who is still on the Jackets payroll, climbing back behind the bench and former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button stepping in for Howson.

Hitchcock has denied he's talked to the Blue Jackets about the job but has recently been seen watching the club play and practise with team president Mike Priest, an accountant by trade.

Button spoke to the Free Press on Sunday afternoon.

"Before you even ask the question I can tell you I have had zero contact with them. Zero," said Button, who won a Stanley Cup as director of player personnel with the Dallas Stars while Hitchcock was coaching there. "And I've talked to Hitch and he's told me he hasn't talked to them about the job. I have no reason to believe he's being anything but truthful."

Arniel was contacted via text message on Sunday but said he'd prefer not to comment at this stage.

Columbus has a payroll north of $64 million but has yet to play with its full lineup in one game this season.

Arniel shouldn't hang for any of this nor should he swing due to the terrible play of his goalies. Starter Steve Mason has gone from a blue chip prospect to a disappointment and owns a 3.33 GAA and .885 save percentage.

Arniel is 35-44-14 with the Blue Jackets, including a 4-23-8 run dating back to last February. Management went and got him new players this off-season, including sniper Jeff Carter. But Carter has been injured and is just getting going for the Jackets while Wisniewski is just coming off suspension. Arniel deserves time with a full lineup before he's judged.

Columbus is a strong hockey market but they've only made the playoffs once in the franchise's 11-year history and attendance has begun to dwindle while monetary losses have mounted.

The playoffs and a winning team could solve a lot of these woes for the Ohio franchise and ownership and Priest have begun to push the buttons.

Predictably, the results have been catastrophic and now two young hockey minds getting their first NHL opportunities may pay the price.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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