The Columbus Blue Jackets have had a few rare pockets of respectability in an otherwise undistinguished 11-year existence. Seventy-one points and 29 victories in their first year under coach Dave King, a good start for an NHL expansion team. Ninety-two points in their eighth year under coach Ken Hitchcock, one lone detour into playoff territory, one brief hint that they were finally getting on the right track. Otherwise, it's been a series of staggers and missteps for an organization that has mostly had trouble getting it right over the years.
But any team can succeed in the NHL with credible hockey people at the helm, which is why Tuesday’s decision to hire John Davidson as president of hockey operations represents a smart move in the right direction. The Blue Jackets had an NHL worst 65 points last season, a year characterized by turmoil, instability, terrible luck with injuries and the departure of the face of the franchise, Rick Nash, in a forced deal with the New York Rangers. Nash wanted out, largely because he could see no future in Columbus - and that sort of thinking is death for any organization scrambling for credibility in a 30-team league.
Davidson’s presence alone cannot change that attitude overnight, but it surely will help. He is a popular former NHL goaltender who became a popular television broadcaster, based in New York with the MSG network. He did it, largely through his personal charisma. Popularity doesn’t win championships, or create playoff teams, but salesmanship does - and that’s how Davidson was successful in his previous gig, acting as the de facto front man for a St. Louis Blues franchise that was in similar dire straits before he took the wheel.
The Blues cast Davidson adrift last month, largely as a cost-cutting measure under a new ownership group, led by Tom Stillman. In his time with the Blues, they went from a perennial playoff also-ran to a team with the No. 3 record in the NHL last year. They did it with a couple of judicious hires - Hitchcock as coach, Doug Armstrong as general manager - and by intelligently drafting and developing players to play for a budget-conscious organization. Many of their best prospects were homegrown prospects, drafted towards the end of the first round. David Perron was 26th overall in 2007, Patrick Bergland 25th in 2006 and T.J. Oshie 24th in 2005. Sometimes, players chosen at that stage of the draft can be hit-and-miss. All three have become quality NHLers and players who can make a difference.
All the things Davidson did for the Blues - which largely involved going out into the community and getting sponsors, advertisers and a disenchanted fan base - interested in the team again, he’ll need to do again in Columbus. Without Nash in the line-up and coming off a terrible year, it will be a daunting task. But Davidson is a good man, with a now proven track record, and his sort of leadership style - the velvet glove as opposed to hammer over the head - should gradually turn Columbus’s fortunes around. Put it this way: If he can’t, then likely no one else can either.