Editor’s Note: The following interview took place on March 29th, before the end of the season.
With another non-playoff season now in the books for the Blue Jackets, the writing is on the wall for General Manager Scott Howson: changes need to be made to the roster. As timing would have it, he has 12 free agents on his roster, including several defensemen which is an area of serious need. I had the chance to speak with Howson between periods at the 3/29 game vs. Florida, and I asked him a few questions about the upcoming off-season. I’ll have more next week about needs and prescriptions, but this should be a good kickoff for where the franchise sits now after two straight non-playoff seasons.
DP: It’s your second straight season missing the playoffs. What’s your overall assessment of where the roster stands right now?
GM Scott Howson: Well, we’ve got some work to do to try and get this team to be a legitimate playoff team. We were on the fringes this year; we had the great start and then we got into the fringe of the race, but we dropped off. So, I think there’s been progress made, but we’re not where we need to be.
DP: The roster currently has 12 free agents coming up this summer. Are you planning to spend time on the free agency side of things [first], or do you spend your time preparing for the draft first and foremost after the season?
GMSH: Both. Yeah, both. We’re already preparing for the draft, obviously, and we’ll continue to do that. But, we’re starting to prepare for free agency, too, and sort of analyze what may be out there and what our needs are.
DP: One area of your team that you do have a lot of free agents is on the blue line, and there’s been some talk of remaking that blue line. You have two guys under contract. In your mind, do you have an idea of how many spots you might see turn over there, or is it just kind of a “wait and see” and see who’s available sort of thing?
GMSH: I don’t think [we’re] going to turn over five or six people, but there’s an opportunity there to turn over two or three—including maybe one of our younger players making the team—and I think there’s an opportunity there to make the team better.
DP: Your top-six is pretty much all under contract with the exception of Jake Voracek, who’s a restricted free agent. Is there any update on where things stand with him?
GMSH: No, we’ll talk after the year’s over. We see him as a big part of our future, and I’m sure we’ll have lots of discussions with Petr Svoboda, who’s his agent.
DP: The team’s been struggling to score a little bit of late. Do you see the need for an influx of guys that would be considered “skill” players? The team has lost the last six shootouts that they’ve had*, and they’ve been having some trouble putting the puck in the net. Is it more a lack of skill, is it adapting to the system?
*Though they would win a shootout that night, ironically.
GMSH: No, I think we’re always looking for skill. Everybody’s looking for skill, and that’s ultimately how you win in this league: with skilled competitive players. If we can add to that, we’re going to.
DP: Do you see that [influx of skill] as more of a free agent move, or maybe trades? Or, do you have some guys in your system that you feel can fill those roles?
GMSH: Well, we have some people that can eventually fill the roles. I’m not going to put that onus on them next year. I think we see opportunities both [in] trades and free agency if that’s how we want to allocate our resources.
DP: One of your goaltenders—Mathieu Garon—is a free agent this year. I remember Rick Nash saying one time after a shootout loss that going against a left-catching goalie is often very, very different from practicing against two right-catching goalies. Is that something that goes into your factoring out what you want to do at that position, and is goaltender an area where you might look to make a significant upgrade?
GMSH: We haven’t really decided that. I think Mathieu has been a very good player here for us. When we signed him, he’s delivered what we thought he would deliver. I think it is difficult for players to always face two right-handed goaltenders is practice and when they practice shootouts. Most of the goalies [in the league] are left-handed catchers, so I think that is difficult. Is it gonna sway us one way or the other? I don’t think so. But, we understand that that’s an issue.
DP: Last question: Ryan Johansen [had an] excellent season at Portland. 63 games, 40 goals, 92 points. He’s too young for the AHL [next season]. Is there a scenario where he goes back to Portland next year, or is he putting the pressure on you guys to bring him up here? Is there anything left for him to work on at the junior level?
GMSH: Well, hopefully he’s going to have a long playoff run, here, and really continue to assert himself. He’s putting pressure on us, sure, but that’ll be decided—he’ll make the decision for us in training camp.
Some follow up:
Re: Jake Voracek, head coach Scott Arniel has since come out and said that Voracek’s biggest need this off-season is to better condition himself. Voracek has said he will change his off-season conditioning program.
Re: the draft, the Jackets finished 7th in the pre-lottery pool, and managed to slide back to 8th when the New Jersey Devils came to win the lottery from the 8th spot and moved up to #4 themselves.
Re: goaltending, part-time goaltenders’ coach Dave Rook—whose contract was up on June 30th—stepped down this week, citing family concerns. Rook said he didn’t want to uproot his family and force them to move to Columbus full-time, as the Jackets need a full-time netminders’ coach.
Re: Ryan Johansen, his Portland Winterhawks continue in the playoffs. They are on the verge of playing for the Western Hockey League title, as they lead their semi-final series 3-1 with game 5 coming tonight. In eight games so far, Johansen has six goals, eight assists, and a +4 rating. Kid’s going to be a MONSTER some day.
Finally, my thanks again to GM Scott Howson for his time and for answering our questions!
Photo Credit: Columbus Dispatch