Elation in Columbus over the Blue Jackets' first berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009 gave way to disappointment last season when the team stumbled back out of the postseason picture.
But happy times are back again, as Columbus currently owns a 14-8-1 record and is competing with perennial favorites Detroit and Chicago for first place in the Central Division. Appearing as a guest on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman," Vice President and General Manager Scott Howson addressed how the Blue Jackets have managed to get back on track.
"Obviously we made a coaching change at the end of last year and hired a full-time coach," Howson said, referring to new bench boss Scott Arniel
. "I really think the credit goes to the coaching staff and the players. They've connected well, and there's a new energy, a new enthusiasm. The players were disappointed and embarrassed about last year and they've come back with a new attitude and trying to prove everybody wrong."
Bettman asked Howson to describe the process of hiring Arniel, who spent the previous four seasons coaching the AHL's Manitoba Moose, who he led to the 2009 Calder Cup Finals.
"In talking to the people that worked with him, he got very good, strong recommendations, so that got him into the interview process," Howson said. "As we went through the interview process -- we talked to five or six coaches after whittling it down from about 20 names -- Scott just really came through as somebody that was really confident, comfortable with himself, very direct, knew what he wanted, knew what his plan was going to be, and so it just seemed like he was going to be a right fit."
Arniel has gotten the most out of his players so far-- including captain Rick Nash
, who has 13 goals in 22 games.
"He's the face of the franchise, and we were fortunate enough to sign him to a long-term deal two summers ago," Howson said. "I think that was a real important step for our franchise, for the credibility and the legitimacy of our franchise in our city and our fans. He's growing as a player -- I think (former coach) Ken Hitchcock did a great job with Rick when he first got him, made him understand the importance of things like penalty-killing and he didn't want him to be just a one-dimensional player.
"He's an all-round player. He's a bit of a streaky player and he got on one of those hot streaks a couple weeks ago. We went out to California and he literally put us on his back and carried us, and I think he was probably first star in every game. He ended up getting 6 goals out there and we won all three games. He's just a dominant player."
While the Blue Jackets have one of the NHL's best road records at 8-2-0, they're an ordinary 6-6-1 at Nationwide Arena, something Howson acknowledged must change if they want to remain among the League's elite as the season progresses and the playoffs approach. He also knows that winning at home will only increase fan support -- and believes hockey can and will succeed in Columbus.
"The hockey market is growing. If you look at the number of rinks, the number of teams, the number of participants both at the youth level and the amateur and adult level, before the Blue Jackets were there compared to now, it's increased twentyfold," Howson said. "It's growing, all these markets take time, and we're very conscious of that and trying to make sure we're involved at the grassroots level to try to make sure the good athletes are choosing hockey as one of their sports and hopefully continuing on with it as they get older."
Bettman also pointed out that Howson proposed the change to the tiebreaker rules that was implemented this season to take shootout wins out of the equation. As a result, Philadelphia entered Thursday's action ranked ahead of Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division standings even though each team had 34 points and the Penguins had 16 wins compared to 15 for the Flyers.
As Bettman pointed out earlier in the show, Pittsburgh had two shootout wins to Philadelphia's one, leaving each with 14 wins in regulation or overtime. The tie then ended up being broken via goal differential, with the Flyers' plus-23 beating out the Penguins' plus-17.
"After discussing our options I thought it was a good idea to reward the teams that win during the true team play," Howson said. "We know that shootouts are a very exciting part of our game. It's not (aimed at) eliminating the shootout or taking it away, we just want to make sure that the teams that played well while the team play is going on are rewarded."