John Davidson Takes Charge in Columbus

The Columbus Blue Jackets have named former St. Louis Blues team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson its new President of Hockey Operations. The hiring of Davidson ended months of speculation as to what Davidson would elect to do, including a possible return to the broadcasting booth, following the Blues new ownership’s decision to allow Davidson to interview for other opportunities, culminating in a buyout from the remaining 3 years of his $6 million contract with the organization on October 9th, 2012.

The hiring also culminated the courting of Davidson, both during the summer of 2012 and most recently during the past few weekends by the Blue Jackets, a team that has reached the lowest of ebbs in their brief history, one rife with struggles, gaffes and disappointments. Save for one brief playoff appearance in 2009, the Blue Jackets have consistently occupied the cellar of the NHL’s Central Division as well as the overall playoff standings. Adding to the frustration and struggles was their inability to draft and develop more than one All-Star caliber player, that being the recently-traded Rick Nash to the New York Rangers after the Blue Jackets had the worst record in the National Hockey League (NHL) in 2012-2013 with 65 points.

Davidson is not new to inheriting an organization that had reached the depths of ineptitude. Davidson was named the President of the Blues Hockey Operations in 2006 after suffering the worst record in the NHL, registering a paltry 59 points. This ineptitude was particularly difficult to the Blues organization and their rabid fan base: although the Blues have never hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup, they did qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for 25 consecutive years, the third longest consecutive playoff appearance streak in NHL history.

What made Davidson so adept at turning around the Blues fortunes was his ability to garner a bevy of hockey minds to rebuild the once-proud franchise. Although Davidson retained Larry Pleau as the Blues General Manager (GM), it was evident that Davidson’s fingerprints were all over the decisions he made after assuming control of the hockey operations, rendering Pleau as the de facto GM for the next four seasons. Davidson then brought in former Blues legend Al MacInnis to serve as the Blues Vice President of Hockey Operations. Davidson then installed a strong development program under head scout Jarmo Kekalainen, then promoted the former Finnish winger to Assistant GM and Director of Amateur Scouting. In 2008, Davidson then acquired Doug Armstrong, the former GM of the Dallas Stars Stanley Cup championship team (1999) as the Blues Vice President of Player Personnel. Armstrong was later promoted to the GM role in July, 2010, replacing Pleau, who subsequently served in an advisory role.

Davidson then began to rebuild the Blues on-ice product, drafting defenseman Erik Johnson as the NHL’s 1st overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft then promptly made some big deals, picking up Jay McKee, Bill Guerin and Manny Legace in free agency and bringing back Doug Weight after a successful run with the Carolina Hurricanes. Davidson then leveraged the Blues’ slew of high draft picks in 2006 and 2007, drafting Johnson, T.J. Oshie and David Perron.

The Blues had their share of ups and downs over the next five seasons but their fortunes seemed to have changed when Ken Hitchcock was hired in November, 2011 after former head coach Davis Payne struggled out of the gate of the 2011-2012 season with a 6-7-0 record. Under Hitchcock’s disciplined, defense-first, team buy-in philosophy, the Blues went on a torrid tear, finishing the remainder of the regular season with a 43-15-11 mark and the 2nd best record in the Western Conference thus garnering Hitchcock as the recipient of the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year and Armstrong as the NHL’s Executive of the Year.

So, why did the Blues decide to buy out the remainder of Davidson’s contract? Perhaps Davidson was a victim of his own success, perhaps it was a cost-cutting move by the Blues new ownership group, SLB Acquisition Holdings, chaired by Tom Stillman or perhaps it was the belief that, aside for the 69-game tear in his last season as Blues President, that it was the hiring of Armstrong and Hitchcock that buoyed the Blues prior five years of mediocrity as the Blues overall record prior to their surge was 190-174-57.

No matter the reason, what may have beenSt. Louis’ loss was the Blue Jackets gain, in both the relative sense and in attempting to attain some semblance of structure to the direction of their hockey operations.

Now comes the curiosity part…

In speaking to the assembled media, current team President Mike Priest stated that part of building a ‘world-class organization’ in Columbus included handing the hockey decision-making reigns to Davidson. Per Priest, “He’ll have full autonomy over the competition side of our organization.”

But, with the belief that Priest struggled with relinquishing control over the hockey-related operations to others within the organization, will Davidson truly have full autonomy over the on-ice decision making?

But the biggest question of all: how will this decision impact the current, embattled GM, Scott Howson? Howson has overseen the ascent to qualifying for the playoffs in 2008-2009 but has also been to blame for the subsequent plummet to the bottom of the NHL standings ever since, due to a series of dumbfounding trades, free agent acquisitions, questionable drafts and several puzzling granting of long-term contract extensions to marginal players. But perhaps his greatest gaffe during his tenure as GM has been his insistence on making former Calder Trophy recipient Steve Mason his number one goaltender, even after Mason was one of the NHL’s worst statistical goalies for each of the following three seasons from his rookie campaign.

While it’s possible that Howson could act in a capacity similar to Pleau in St. Louis, with both seasoned executives like Davidson and Craig Patrick, currently the Blue Jackets Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations, the pressure on Howson to deliver on turning around the fortunes of this moribund organization will be great.

But, no matter how the upcoming season plays out, assuming that there is a season to be played, for the first time in a long time, Blue Jackets long-suffering fans have a reason for hope for stability in their hockey operations and cause for optimism. They deserve that, and so much more.

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  1. Spectors Hockey | NHL Lockout Blog Beat – October 26, 2012. - October 26, 2012

    [...] INSIDE HOCKEY: Ed Cmar’s take on the Columbus Blue Jackets recent hiring of John Davidson as their new president of hockey operations. [...]