Davidson’s ‘brick-by-brick’ approach working wonders in Columbus
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The maturation process of a rebuilding hockey club takes many twists and turns along the way to success. At the beginning of the season, there weren’t many that would predict the Blue Jackets making the playoffs. They were too young and inexperienced, some said. They don’t know how to win, others opined.
And now, here we are. Columbus made the playoffs, tied in the first-round series with the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-2. Yes, their season was a rollercoaster ride, especially early on. But they steadied the ship and focused, coming together as a team for the collective goal.
When John Davidson was hired as President of Hockey Operations in Oct. 2012, his mantra for the franchise was, and still is, building it the right way, "brick by brick." Nothing has changed with that philosophy. If anything, the road to success has been more like leaps than incremental steps.
No one expected the team to make the incredible run they made last year. With rookies and many young players with little experience, success was something that would happen a bit further down the road.
As great a story the two wins in this series have been (first playoff victory and first home playoff victory, respectively), in the grand scheme of making Columbus into a successful team that is considered a contender year after year, it is still just two wins.
Prior to Game Four on Wednesday evening, I asked John Davidson how important winning that game would be for the club. "I don’t look at it that way," he said. "It would great if we could (they won 4-3 in OT)."
"We want to learn how to win big games like a playoff game on home ice and we’re in the middle of that. We were in a good position to do it in Game Three but didn’t get it done. But it’s still, for me, I live in the ‘now,’ but I also live in the future."
Although there are veteran players on the roster with playoff experience, the scrutiny has been on the youth that permeates the lineup. The club had a history of rushing young players to the NHL, which in turn slowed their development.
"We were wondering if some of our young players would even make our team this year. And here they are, playing against a very good club (Pittsburgh) in a big spot. So, that’s all the positive stuff that we have to try to get our kids to experience, and some of our veteran players that haven’t been in the playoffs for a while, too."
The team making the playoffs and winning some games is the icing on the cake this year. The substance is the progress that they have made while facing adversity and maturing as players.
"I’m not going to live and die with one game," Davidson said. "I’m going to keep living with what we’re doing to try and get us into a better place. We’re in a good place. We’ve played really well, in a lot of ways. But I still think that my job, that our job, is to look at the big picture."
Success is measured in many ways. For a storied franchise, contending for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis is the barometer. For Columbus, success is measured in the progress of each "brick" contributing to build up the club, to make the foundation solid and upon which contending seasons can be laid.
"I think a lot of our veteran players have gotten better. (James) Wisniewski has had a good year. Jack Johnson has had a great second half. (Brandon) Dubinsky, when he plays the way he’s been playing, there’s a lot of value in his experience, without question.
"Then I look at the young players who we didn’t even know in (training) camp if they would make our team. And here they are, playing in a playoff series and making an impact.
"It’s been a fabulous ride in a lot of ways. But, the ultimate goal is to win something very special. That’s a very difficult thing to do. The higher you go up that mountain, you get to where you almost need oxygen, there’s so much altitude involved."
Davidson has faced the challenge of turning Columbus around head-on. He’s been instrumental in changing the culture of a club that was always just kind of "there" each season. They were seen as going through the motions. That change happened from within and is changing the perception of the Blue Jackets as a franchise that took up space to one that is on the road to success.
"You have to understand how hard it is to get there, the commitment it takes. We’re drafting, we’re finding young players and we’ve got older players that are really good for us. We all need a better summer again so that we don’t have a slow start. There are a lot of different things that go into it, so that’s where we are."
One of the very bright spots this year has been the emergence of the young Ryan Johansen. He’s fast becoming a power forward that is learning how to use his body while making sublime passes or scoring goals with a deft touch. He was expected to show progression, but he has positively exploded this year. Has he reached the ceiling with his abilities?
"No, not yet," said Davidson. "That’s going to be up to him. When you’re big and can skate, the one thing you didn’t see was offense last year. What a lot of people don’t talk about is how good he was on the defensive side of the puck. He shut down Joe Thornton (San Jose). He shut down Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim). He shut down Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh).
"And, he did a great job of it. Winning face-offs, getting in the lanes and winning some loose puck battles. All of that stuff. This season, he continued to do that, plus added the offense. You’re seeing the incremental improvement that you’re looking for."
Johansen’s breakout season has entailed him putting up some stellar numbers compared to just one year ago. In the regular season, he played in all 82 games led the club with 33 goals and 30 assists for 63 points. In four playoff games against the Penguins, he’s accrued two goals and three assists for five points.
"He’s got a great shot and we’d like to see him use it more. He sees the ice very well, whether he’s standing still or at speed. There are a lot of good things that he’s just started to get a grasp of. He’s going to need another good summer. Then he can try and take another step. He’s got the ability, for sure."
While this season is a "feel good" moment in Blue Jackets history, the club has only just scratched the surface on what success really entails. The young players emerging, the veteran leadership within the room and the 180-degree change in the culture are propelling them towards respectability.
This is the franchise that fans always wanted to see. Their patience is now being rewarded.