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Howson: 'We had to make a change'

by Dave Lozo
Scott Howson spent 10 minutes during a conference call Monday evening discussing the firing of coach Scott Arniel. The questions directed at the Columbus Blue Jackets general manager were varied, but they all had a common thread.

How does the franchise get itself turned around?

"You do it one step at a time," said Howson, who took the first step Monday when he replaced Arniel with assistant coach Todd Richards on an interim basis. "You move forward with a plan. This is not something we wanted to do, but we felt the way the season was going, we had to make a change."


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The Blue Jackets finished the first half of the season with a 7-4 road loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, but Howson said his mind was made up about firing Arniel before the game. Through 41 games, the Blue Jackets sit in 30th place in the League standings with 27 points and 8 regulation/overtime victories. They rank 27th in goals scored (2.34 per game) and goals allowed (3.24).

Every team deals with injuries, but few have had it as bad as the Jackets.

Defenseman James Wisniewski, who signed a six-year, $33 million contract over the summer, missed the first eight games of the season due to a suspension for a hit to the head of Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck during the preseason. He was placed on injured reserve last week after suffering a broken ankle.

Jeff Carter was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers during the summer in an effort to give the Blue Jackets a second scoring threat to go along with captain Rick Nash. It's another move that hasn't panned out mostly due to injury, as Carter missed 10 games with a fractured foot and has just 10 goals in 30 games. Carter suffered a shoulder injury against the Ducks on Sunday. Howson said Carter could be out anywhere from 3 to 4 days to 3 to 4 weeks.

Left wing Kristian Huselius has played only two games this season due to pectoral and groin injuries, while defenseman Marc Methot missed six games with a thumb problem and fellow blueliner Radek Martinek has been out since late October with a concussion.

It's all added up to a disappointing outcome to a season that had high expectations. Howson said the next step will likely be dealing away some veterans at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

"We will constantly evaluate, but at this point, we anticipate we will be trading away some of our players," Howson said. "We'll see what the next month and half brings and see if there's some improved play and then we'll make a decision then. We're not close on anything. Nothing's imminent."

A big problem for a potential rebuild in Columbus is the team has very few free agents following the season, but many players locked into long-term deals.

The Blue Jackets have just four players who will enter this summer as unrestricted free agents -- forwards Vinny Prospal and Samuel Pahlsson are two players who could have some value, but the other two players are Huselius and Martinek, both of whom have been dealing with injuries all season.

Rick Nash
Right Wing - CBJ
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 29
SOG: 156 | +/-: -20
here are seven players signed through at least the 2014-15 season -- Nash, Carter, Wisniewski, Methot, R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Fedor Tyutin. Only Tyutin hasn't drastically underperformed this season, leaving Howson in a situation where he'll need to work on getting the most out of the players in which he's invested the most.

"We still have belief in the players," Howson said. "We didn't sign anybody long-term that we didn't believe in. Some of these guys aren't having the years we thought they would have. It's up to us to get it out of them. It is a challenge right now, but there's hope here. We're going to just move forward and push it along and get better performances out of individuals which will mean a better performance from the team."

That job falls on the shoulder of Richards, who was hired as an assistant by Arniel over the summer. Richards spent the previous two seasons as coach of the Wild. He joined the coaching staff of Todd McLellan in San Jose in 2008-09 after spending two seasons coaching the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Penguins in the AHL, which is where he worked with Howson when he was the GM of the Oilers' farm system. The Oilers lacked their own farm team and some of their players joined Richards and the Penguins.

The 45-year-old Richards said there's one word he wants to impart on his players when he faces them at practice Tuesday.

"Accountability is a big word," Richards said. "I know coaches throw it around and you here it all the time. It's just players getting the ice time they deserve. To me, it's a team that's driven from within. Players fighting for power-play minutes and not just giving them away. To me, that's the challenge, getting the team to drive itself from the inside."

Some questioned the lack of playing time and ice time for Derick Brassard and Ryan Johansen, two players who embody the future of the Blue Jackets. Much like everyone else on the team, they struggled throughout the first half. Brassard found himself in the press box as a healthy scratch at times while Johansen, the fourth pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, has seen his minutes dwindle.

Richards said that when it comes to players being accountable and earning their minutes, that applies to everyone, not just the young players.

"When I make that statement, everybody's included," Richards said. "Nobody's exempt. I don't owe anybody anything at this stage. That's going to be one of the messages tomorrow to the group. It's a new coach coming in. If you feel like you haven’t gotten the opportunity, here's your opportunity. The door will be open. You just want players to burst through that door."

"You do it one step at a time. You move forward with a plan. This is not something we wanted to do, but we felt the way the season was going, we had to make a change." -- Blue Jackets' GM Scott Howson
How Richards handles the goaltending situation should be interesting. Steve Mason has been a shell of the player that won the Calder Trophy in 2009. He has yet to post a goals-against average better than 3.03 or a save percentage higher than .901 since that season. In 24 games this season, Mason is 5-16-2 with a 3.46 GAA and .882 save percentage.

Backup Curtis Sanford has been the far better option. In 19 games, the 32-year-old is 6-8-3 with a 2.49 GAA and .914 save percentage.

"That's a game-by-game decision," Richards said. "Curtis has been very good. Steve at times has struggled. Tomorrow is our next, most important game, and that's a game we want to win. We can't get too far away from ourselves. In this League, you need both goalies. So there's going to come a point when we'll have to count on Steve."

Arniel was 45-60-18 in 123 games as Blue Jackets coach, including an 11-25-5 mark this season.

Richards went 77-71-16 as coach of the Wild, but never made the playoffs in his two seasons there.

If anything, this could be an audition for the Blue Jackets coaching job in 2012-13. Howson said it was best to promote Richards on an interim basis and make a decision on a permanent coach after the season. How the GM will go about evaluating his coach with the season virtually lost and so many players injured will be a challenge.

"If there's a lot of people out of the lineup, that will be factored in to how you evaluate anybody," Howson said. "Coaches are there to get the most out of people and the most out of teams. I've seen Todd do it. I know he's a good coach and has a terrific way of getting to the players and I hope he can do that here."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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