NHL Draft Preview With Scott Howson

Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson spoke to the media today and provided a rather candid self-assessment on his efforts to build the CBJ into a winner.

“It’s hard. It’s hard. And we’ve made some mistakes here under my watch. You hope you learn and you hope you gain better understanding, more experience, and you make better decisions. It’s all about the players. It’s all about making decisions on players. You have to make good decisions on players.”

Not only was Howson brave enough to put his work under a microscope, he also admitted that there is a real sense of urgency right now. “It’s exciting.” he told the group of reporters gathered at Nationwide Arena.”There’s a lot going on. Probably more than normal, teams realize we’re probably somewhat more open to trading a top ten pick than we’ve been in the past for immediate help. So that’s generated some interest. We’ve had some good conversations already.”

Of those conversations, he didn’t reveal much, except to say that he has yet to rule anything out, and “I’ve had a few surprising calls about players that might be available [this offseason].”

Just don’t count on those surprise players being moved at the draft, Howson added. At this point, they’re just names being bandied about.

As for Howson’s draft plans? “How certain am I that we’re going to trade the pick? I’m not certain at all,” he said. “The 8th overall pick is a very attractive asset and teams are interested in it, but it’s got to be something that’s going to make us better immediately.”

And no player who would fall to the Jackets at number eight would be an immediate impact. “That would be an unrealistic expectation,” Howson agreed.

For that reason, he has considered trading down for more picks…although, that would not be his preference. He believes, at this point, trading up would be too expensive.

Howson also feels that, regardless of how this weekend plays out, the Jackets will be aggressive in free agency.

“Right now we want to add top talent. There’s character, there’s skill, and hockey sense. Those are the three things [we most value]. But we want to add a top 6 forward or a top 4 defenseman, and that’s what we’re looking for. Certainly if we’re going to draft someone with the 8th pick, we have to be able to project they’re going to get there some day.”

At another point in his press conference, Howson listed the Blue Jackets needs as: “Defense, center and improved goaltending.” Howson mentioned that they’ve made a move to solidify their goaltending by hiring coach Ian Clark and they’re happy with Steve Mason, although Mase is one of the players who will have to make a big jump this season.

“There’s got to be internal improvement here, too. We need players to be play better who have been here the last 2-3 years.”

Of course, he’s made that comment at other times during his tenure. That’s partly the nature of the NHL and partly the result of his philosophy. “It’s unrealistic to expect we’re going to change this team around just by adding 2-3 players. It’s been proven that that’s a very, very rare occurrence. You have to make your people better, and I’m a big believer in that and I believe in the people here, that they can be better. It’s up to us and our coaches to make sure they get better.”

In the past, the Jackets tried to improve their existing corp by bringing in players who had been captains on their former teams. “I think it’s something we’ve tried here, and it hasn’t worked to the full extent that we thought possible. So I just see more of a leadership group within our team right now that they’ve matured into [taking over as team leaders],” Howson said. “But we have to help them get there. As we mature as a franchise, you’ll see more and more players who have had success come through here. A guy like Rick [Nash], he’s more committed than ever to trying to make it happen here.”

In the end, Howson stresses that there is an urgency this week, but no sense of panic. This is not a time of desperation. “There’s an opportunity [after the draft] and the opportunity is July 1. Then the next opportunity is the summer when teams figure out what they have, what they don’t have. So there’s more than one opportunity here,” he pointed out. He did acknowledge, however, “This is an important one, though, and I do feel a heightened motivation to try to do something here.”

NEWS AND NOTES:

  • Howson started off the press conference by announcing the hiring of Todd Richards. Howson said he was excited to bring the former Wild head coach aboard because, “He’s had success on power plays. He had a good power play in Minnesota. He was part of the power play in San Jose. So he’ll bring some new ideas and new direction to that part of our game. We definitely wanted somebody who’s had success on the power play somewhere, preferably at the NHL level.” Although Howson values what Richards will bring to the CBJ, Howson also praised the returning staff, “I think coaching was a strength of our organization last year.”
  • TSN reported today that the NHL salary cap is expected to rise by $5 million dollars, and that won’t make things easier for the CBJ. If true, fewer teams will need to shop players in order to dump salary, and teams have more wiggle room to resign their players and keep them off the free agent market. “There’s really, at this point, anyway, nobody who’s in real cap trouble,” said Howson.
  • Talks with Jan Hejda have been tabled until after the draft and there has been no decision made on whether or not to buyout Mike Commodore.
  • There’s been a change to the Blue Jackets draft preparations this year. Instead of bringing players to Nationwide for interviews, CBJ scouts met prospects on their own turf. “We wanted to get in to their homes this year. Just see the famiy setting and the family environment.” Howson explained. “Some teams have done that in the past, and we thought it might be useful for us.”
  • The other difference in draft preparations this year according to Howson? The Jackets have built some important relationships that have paved the way to the CBJ obtaining more than the usual amount of amateur video.
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