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Howson balancing present and future for Blue Jackets

by Shawn P. Roarke

Despite the fact that this is Scott Howson's first trade deadline as a GM, he has previous experience as an assistant GM in Edmonton.
NAPLES, Fla. -- The pressure of the trade deadline is not conducive to on-the-job training. But sometimes it is just unavoidable.

ALSO:  Dan Rosen's Blog

This year, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson is among the rookie GMs enduring the pressures unique to the NHL’s late-season swap meet, where nerves of steel are necessary to navigate the countless decisions that can make or break a franchise.

Dallas Stars co-GMs Brett Hull and Les Jackson are the other first-year GMs in the League this season.

Howson, who took over in Columbus last June, has lived through some pressure-filled trade deadlines as an assistant GM in Edmonton, serving under GM Kevin Lowe. Last year, he was part of the inner sanctum that had to decide whether or not the Oilers would trade franchise icon Ryan Smyth.

In the end, Smyth was traded; sent to the Islanders in a last-minute deal that landed the Edmonton franchise a bevy of prospects, but also severely divided the franchise’s fan base -- at least temporarily.

Howson figured prominently in those discussions, offering his opinion and analyzing all the options Lowe had at his disposal. But in the end, Howson knew that the decision, as momentous as it was, would rest solely with Lowe.

“It is still different because you are the one that has to decide if you are the one to trade Ryan Smyth or keep him; and that was Kevin’s decision,” Howson said. “Now, you are the one that has to make those decisions.”

And despite seeing the angst that the Smyth decision caused the Edmonton GM, Howson welcomes that opportunity to be the final arbiter for the Blue Jackets. He knows that he will have to make some tough decisions -- beginning this week – but that is what he has trained for since joining the Edmonton organization back in 1994-95 as a minor-league GM.

“I think I’ve prepared for (being a GM) during my time with Kevin,” Howson said. “Any decision Kevin made, I was involved in.

“It was essential for me (to be an assistant GM), but I’m not saying it is essential for other people,” Howson said. “I had never been in the NHL for any length of time as a player, certainly wasn’t an executive, so I had to get my feet wet and learn under a great mentor in Kevin Lowe and the Edmonton Oilers. So, it was essential for me. There’s all sorts of paths to get here and people can take different paths. I certainly am pleased with my path to get here. I had a great experience in Edmonton and it was a wonderful opportunity for me.”

But Howson was ready to move on and take a greater responsibility in shaping a franchise. That opportunity came in early June when he was selected by the Blue Jackets to replace Doug MacLean.

Howson now has nine months as a GM under his belt and has navigated pressure-filled events like the Entry Draft and the summertime free-agency period. He better understands the pressure that Lowe faced after dealing with those experiences.

“It’s tougher (being the GM), but it’s exciting and exhilarating at the same time,” Howson said.

And Howson knows things will get even more exciting and more exhilarating this week as trade fever sweeps across the NHL universe.

“There’s lots of opportunities out there to make your team better, in the future and maybe now; so it is an exciting time,” he said. “There is a lot of discussion going into what we are going to do among our group and then we will make some decisions.”

Howson, for one, faces some incredibly tough decisions in the coming days. Entering Tuesday night’s action, the Blue Jackets are just three points out of the final playoff spot, but have four teams to climb over to grab a playoff berth and advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

So, does Howson leverage the franchise’s bright future by trading away younger assets -- players and prospects -- for immediate, short-term veteran help? Does he stand pat, believing his maturing team has the pieces in place to make up the gap and compete evenly in the postseason? Or, does the GM start unloading some veteran pieces -- most notably the seven soon-to-be unrestricted free agents on his roster -- to amass even more young assets to solidify the long-term health of his organization?

There’s lots of opportunities out there to make your team better, in the future and maybe now; so it is an exciting time. - Scott Howson

“I think we are in a unique position for us,” Howson admits. “I guess a lot of teams are in it. We have seven unrestricted free agents and we don’t know if we are in the playoff race or out of the playoff race. We’re in it now, but that could change. And, it’s very tight in the West and it looks like there are six or seven teams going for two or three spots.

”So, it’s competitive and we are going to have to make that decision at some points over the next seven days. We have three games this week and we will probably use every piece of evidence we can before we make those decisions.”

If the Blue Jackets win those three games -- beginning tonight against Toronto -- the Jackets may well be in a position that requires Howson to make moves that will bolster his club for a playoff run, which would be the logical next step in the growth of the franchise.

“It would certainly be an important statement for our franchise, our players, our fans,” Howson admits. “We’re trying to make the playoffs and we are going to do everything we can to make the playoffs.”

But the playoffs, and a likely date against an elite team like Detroit or Dallas, won’t be an all-seducing siren song that entices Howson to start selling off his assets at a discounted rate.

“We are not going to jeopardize some of our long-term future in doing that and there are some young players that I just wouldn’t consider, they would be non-starters in any deal,” Howson said.

Hmmm. Maybe Howson is ready for the trade deadline after all.


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