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DBJ’s 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets season in review: Part Four

By Tom

Finally, at long last, we’re at the end of the “Season in Review” road.  I’m sure that there’s an argument that there’s some symmetry to this series taking as long as the Stanley Cup Playoffs (which, but for a single standings point, would have included the Columbus Blue Jackets), but I’ll simply say that I’ve enjoyed taking the time to ponder that which was truly important this season.  I could have blasted a couple pieces out in short order, but time allows for perspective…and I hope that’s what you’ve enjoyed along the way.

So let’s get onto the fourth and final part.  We’ve covered the lockout and taken a look at both the rough start and the roaring finish to the season.  What we haven’t done, though, is consider the surrounding stories that impact the team without immediately showing on the ice.

THE FRONT OFFICE

I touched on the hiring of John Davidson as President of Hockey Operations in Part Two, and new General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen received a mention in Part Three, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what’s happened in the front office on Nationwide Boulevard.

The Columbus Blue Jackets stood poised to enter the (non-lockout) regular season with the same front office configuration as last season: Mike Priest as President, Scott Howson as General Manager and Craig Patrick as Senior Advisor.  Instead, the season was delayed due to the lockout and Davidson was hired on October 24 – well before the eventual season start date of January 19.  Davidson removed Howson on February 12 and hired Kekalainen the next day.

I’ll spare you the eulogy on the Howson regime, but you might wish to know that he has since moved on to a front office role with the Edmonton Oilers.

Let’s consider Davidson in a little more depth.  He clearly was brought in to reenergize the franchise, to recreate the magic of his rejuvenation of the St. Louis Blues.  And as much of a reclamation job as St. Louis was, Columbus represents a much more impressive challenge.  For with the exception of an incredible run that ran out of gas in 2009, the Blue Jackets have never been winners.  Davidson’s job wasn’t to rekindle the history of a once-proud franchise like St. Louis had (8 conference or division titles, 36 playoff appearances, 3 Stanley Cup appearances); it was to essentially start from scratch.  It’s the ultimate challenge for any executive – to create a culture of excellence and expectation where there really hasn’t been either.

I’ve used the offseason to mull this whole matter over, and I think that I can put it in historical context.  John Davidson is respected and beloved throughout the National Hockey League.   If, however, he puts the pieces in place to deliver a Stanley Cup to the people of Columbus while serving in his current capacity…well, he’ll be regarded as among the highest ranking of the college of hockey cardinals.    It’s a staggering challenge, and I admire him for stepping up to it.

With Davidson’s hire suggesting a change in culture at the most visionary levels, Kekalainen’s arrival signaled the same at the strategic and tactical levels.  The coaching staff and locker room may or may not have missed the memo when Davidson took over, but they received it loud and clear with Kekalainen.

The lousy first 13 games were played under Howson.  The team’s improvement started almost immediately under Kekalainen.  I’m not saying that Jarmo Kekalainen was the sole reason for the team’s improvement, and I won’t say Scott Howson was the sole reason for the team’s poor start.  But to overlook this coincidence of chronology isn’t fair to the Davidson/Kekalainen regime.  It was the same players, and they played smarter and harder.  It was the same set of players, and they finally cemented their scheme.  And this happened after Jarmo Kekalainen came to Columbus.  I suppose, if nothing else, they wanted to impress the new GM.

Then you have Kekalainen’s personnel moves to consider.  The big one, of course, was the trade for Marian Gaborik that sent Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore to New York.  Jarmo also traded Steve Mason for Michael Leighton.  (There were draft picks involved in both trades, but I mentioned the relevant players.)  I appreciate that Kekalainen was aggressive in clearing out the remaining members of the core of the post-playoffs locker room and admire his effort to acquire a badly needed elite scoring threat.  Gaborik was hurt, though, and hopefully he will heal up and show us his true colors in 2013-14.  Still, the moves were reasonably bold for a brand new general manager and suggest that Jarmo is no caretaker.  I like that.  It bodes well for the future, provided that his moves pan out.

GOING EAST

The NHL Board of Governors approved a realignment plan that will break the league into two conferences with four divisions.  The Columbus Blue Jackets will move from the Central Division of the Western Conference to the to-be-named division of the Eastern Conference along with the Carolina Hurricanes, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals.

This is exciting news, if only because the number of late, late nights watching the Blue Jackets on yet another West Coast swing will be severely curtailed.  Beyond that, the CBJ’s new division is full of marquee names and competitive teams.  It will be exciting to see how the Blue Jackets will fare; I’ve long understood that the Western Conference is a harder conference to play (and win) in, so perhaps Columbus will surprise a few Eastern Conference observers with their toughness.

THE ALL-STAR GAME

This is one where there is zero relationship between the topic and the performance of the team. Zero. At the same time, this was very big to Metro Columbus as a means to further cement the community’s place on the global stage…a worthy use of sport if I ever saw one.

Alas, it didn’t happen this year because of the lockout.  It also likely won’t happen next year, either, as the NHL has all but committed to replacing the 2014 All-Star break with the league’s participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  That leaves us until 2015, presuming NHL commissioner Bettman and the league’s Board of Governors follow through on their commitment to hold an All-Star Game in Columbus.

While I personally am bummed that the All-Star Game wasn’t played – I had tickets and was intrigued at the idea of seeing the league’s top players on the ice at one time – perhaps a two-year delay will give Davidson and Kekalainen a little more time to assemble a

THE NEW YORK-COLUMBUS UNION BLUESHIRTS

Remember how I started this series with a mention of the failure of the New York Rangers to get to the Stanley Cup Finals? Well, it’s time to revisit that point, because both Columbus and New York were reshaped by each other’s rosters through two trades.

* Rick Nash to New York for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and the Rangers’ 2013 first round draft pick.

* Marian Gaborik (and two minor league defensemen) to Columbus for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, John Moore and Columbus’ 2014 sixth round draft pick.

So who “won” the trades?  It’s still early, and Gaborik’s health will have something to say about the long-term value of the second transaction, but consider this:

* Columbus was 15th in the Western Conference last season.  They improved to 9th in 2013 and missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a hair.

* New York was first in the Eastern Conference last season and lost in the conference finals.  They finished 6th in the East this season and were eliminated in the semifinals.  The Rangers also fired their coach.

In the short run, you have demonstrable improvement on one side (Columbus) and a back-sliding on the other (New York).  I’ll agree with assertions that other factors – notably, injuries for New York – played into their performance, but you cannot in good faith say that the two blockbuster trades worked to the Rangers favor.  Yet Columbus fans would have a hard time saying that our team didn’t benefit from the new arrivals.

Can I say that Columbus won the trades with the Rangers?  Sure, I think I will.

 IN CONCLUSION

It’s been a wild season, what with the lockout, the two-headed season and all of the ancillary stories and happenings.  Columbus fans have heard all too many times before that the future is bright, but I’m cautiously optimistic that this is actually the case this time around.  Davidson and Kekalainen, combined with a solid coaching staff and a roster of genuinely hard workers, appear to have the Columbus Blue Jackets on the right track.

Here’s to a great 2013-14 season – and beyond!

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