NASHVILLE — Once the jolly ambassador for hockey on television, John Davidson has transformed himself into something of a renovator of moribund NHL franchises.
He arrived in St. Louis after the 2005-06 season, when the Blues finished dead last in the NHL. Last season, the Blues posted the third-best overall record in the league.
Then he took his tool bag to Columbus last October, becoming the president of hockey operations. Six months later, his Midas touch can be felt on a franchise that has qualified for the playoffs just once in its history.
Last July, the Blue Jackets were trading away a disgruntled superstar. On Wednesday, the Blue Jackets traded for a disgruntled superstar.
A year ago, the Blue Jackets were playing out the string with meaningless games en route to finishing with the league’s worst overall record. This year, they are engaged in meaningful games, sitting only two points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference entering Thursday’s road meeting with the Predators.
Davidson and his new regime, which includes the league’s first Finnish general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, have helped change perceptions about the Blue Jackets. This Columbus crew currently has the longest points streak in franchise history (8-0-4). Since losing to the Blackhawks 1-0 in regulation on Feb. 24, the Blue Jackets have only lost twice in regulation since.
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — whom it should be noted was acquired for draft picks by the former regime — has the NHL’s second-best save percentage (.927) and sixth-best goals-against average (2.13).
All of that has helped to sway views of the franchise and convinced Marian Gaborik, one of the game’s premier goal-scorers, to waive a no-trade clause to come from the bright lights of New York City and Broadway — where he was in the doghouse of Rangers coach John Tortorella — to the fertile soils of the Midwest. Gaborik said the move by Davidson to fly to the New York area and pick him up in a plane was “very classy.”
“I think the team is going in the right direction — the way they wanted me pretty badly — so it creates a lot of excitement from all the guys,” Gaborik said on Thursday upon his arrival with his new team.
Also, the new structure and attitude of the Blue Jackets organization “really helped my decision,” Gaborik said, “so I’m glad I did it.”
Davidson told him the team needed his goal-scoring prowess.
“We’re trying to win now,” Davidson was quoted as saying in The Columbus Dispatch, “and we’re trying to win in the future.”
Wednesday’s triumphant trade deadline stood in stark contrast to last spring, when the major drama centered around Rick Nash wanting out of Columbus. The Blue Jackets didn’t deal him right away; but the organizational dysfunction was such that after the deadline lapsed, then-general manager Scott Howson held a press conference to reveal the club had no immediate desire to trade Nash, even though he requested separation from the franchise that drafted him.
Now, the shoe, so to speak, is on the other foot.
“It’s a credit to the players because they put themselves in this position and now management has brought in players to get to the next level and try to get to the next level,” said Todd Richards, who became interim coach in January 2012 when the Blue Jackets fired Scott Arniel, before getting the permanent job in May.
“And that’s what you want when you’re a player or when you’re a coach. It’s up to us now as players and coaches now. We’re all excited. You could sense the energy on the room.”
Nashville coach Barry Trotz, who has been with the franchise since 1997, has seen the best and worst of Columbus over the last 16 years.
“I thought they made some great moves in terms of showing their fans that they’re serious of making a playoff run,” he said, alluding to Columbus’s other trade-deadline acquisitions — forward Blake Comeau (Calgary) and goalie Michael Leighton (Philadelphia).
“They’ve played well enough to be there. Early in the season, they looked like they were dead and gone,” Trotz said. “But to Todd’s credit and the coaching staff and the players in that room, they’ve rallied to put themselves into position to get in the playoffs; and they made some bold moves from an offensive standpoint.”
The Blue Jackets have 12 games left to make good on this season’s promise. But if not, their formula which includes balanced scoring — their top-seven points leaders range from Vinny Prospal’s 22 to the 15 of Artem Anisimov, Nick Foligno and defenseman Jack Johnson — the goaltending of Bobrovsky and now the high-end scoring of Gaborik would appear to be a successful one.
“There’s always pressure, pressure on myself as well,” said Gaborik, a three-time 40-goal scorer. “It’s all familiar to me. It’s a good challenge for myself and the team. To help make the playoffs would be huge.”