On February 12th at approximately 8:00 P.M., the Columbus Blue Jackets relieved General Manager (GM) Scott Howson of his duties. Although word leaked shortly thereafter, new Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson announced the very next morning at 9:30 A.M. that Jarmo Kekalainen would be the new General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The struggles of the Blue Jackets during Howson’s regime as GM are well-documented and there’s no need to elaborate on the myriad of reasons as to why his removal had to take place. However, in the grand scheme of things, the repercussions of his actions as GM placed the Blue Jackets organization in a precarious position as it related to the on-ice product, attendance, fan apathy, a nearly toxic destination for free agents and for draftees, due to their failings in drafting and more importantly developing their drafted talent.
In the process, during Howson’s regime, the reigning Jack Adams trophy recipient, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, was fired by Howson as their head coach, Howson hired then fired Scott Arniel as head coach, his trade for Philadelphia Flyers center Jeff Carter was an abject failure as Carter didn’t want to go to Columbus from Day One, and the ultimate failing was his handling of their only superstar and face of the franchise in Rick Nash. Howson’s revelation that Nash asked to be traded was seen by most observers, particularly those outside of Central Ohio, as “throwing him under the bus” and, for both the fan-base and those around the National Hockey League, it was seen as the sign that a major change had to occur in Columbus.
Enter John Davidson…
On October 24, 2012, Davidson was hired as the Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations during the NHL lockout. What the lockout allowed Davidson to do was to allow for some much-needed time to assess the extent of the damage and what steps he would need to take to being the long, arduous process of rebuilding this floundering organization.
Some observers, including myself, believed that, for the first season, that Davidson would be steering the ship and that Howson would be a de facto GM until he could properly impart his fingerprints on the organization. However, the Blue Jackets lackluster play, posting a 3-7-2 record up to what would be Howson’s last game as GM, a stirring 6-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks and, more importantly, their plummeting attendance figures during the last seven games following their opening two games against the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, both of which posted standing room only (SRO) attendance figures but were buoyed by having two such ardent visiting team followings. Since opening the season by averaging 18,750 (Nationwide Arena’s capacity is 18,100), the average attendance over the next seven games was 12,290. In short, the fans had seen enough and, for a financially-struggling team like the Blue Jackets, their fans voiced their concerns in the only way that they could, with their wallets.
So, John Davidson made a decision to hire his former Assistant GM and Director of Amateur Scouting from 2002 to 2010 in Jarmo Kekalainen, a move which is both historic and trailblazing as Kekalainen now becomes the first European GM in the history of the NHL.
It was believed that Davidson went back to Kekalainen as a move of loyalty and rectifying his passing up on Kekalainen when Davidson instead selected former Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong as the Blues GM in 2010. Although Davidson held Kekalainen in the highest regard, given that the Blues organization was in need of returning to their former level as an annual Stanley Cup playoff participant – the Blues possessed the 3rd longest consecutive playoff appearance streak in the history of North America for professional sports teams – in the short-term, as the once-proud franchise went from average attendance figures that were near or at capacity to averaging around 12,000 attendees per game.
Upon Armstrong’s hire, Kekalainen instead opted for the opportunity to take over the GM position with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League and, prior to being hired as the Blue Jackets GM, guided Jokerit to the best record in the Finnish Elite League by a sizeable margin. What was quite interesting about Kekalainen’s contract with Jokerit was an unwritten escape clause with ownership which allowed him to leave if he was offered a similar position in the NHL.
For the Blue Jackets organization and particularly for Davidson, the hiring of Kekalainen seems to be a perfect fit. Since coming on board as the Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations, Davidson has espoused one primary mantra and theme, “Brick by Brick”. It didn’t take a well-respected, savvy hockey executive like Davidson very long to realize that he inherited a major mess, one that could not be repaired in the short-term. But what could be seen as an unexpected silver lining, fan apathy has risen to the point that, much unlike the situation Davidson walked into in St. Louis, Blue Jackets fans would be much more patient to support an organization with a long-term plan, so long as that plan had a positive direction to it.
Enter Jarmo Kekalainen…
Kekalainen’s reputation as one of the most brilliant scouting and player development minds is nearly unparalleled as he has scouted, drafted and developed a veritable ‘who’s who’ in the NHL. As Player Personnel Director and Amateur Scouting Director with the Ottawa Senators, Kekalainen was responsible for landing a stellar list of draft finds both in the early and late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft: Marian Hossa, Jason Spezza, Martin Havlat, Ray Emery, Antoine Vermette, Anton Volchenkov, Mike Fisher, Brooks Laich and Chris Neil, just to name a few. What’s even more impressive is that the majority of the Kekalainen’s finds were outside of the 1st round of the NHL draft.
As Player Personnel Director and Amateur Scouting Director with the St. Louis Blues, Kekalainen helped build the young core of the Blues organization with the following drafted and developed players: TJ Oshie, David Backes, Lee Stempniak, Patrik Berglund, David Peron, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, the majority of which were responsible for the ascent of the Blues to the NHL’s second best record during the 2011-2012 season.
For the Blue Jackets, whose legacy of 1st and later round failures in endless, even less than this stellar legacy and level of success should result in seismic improvements in the future and the direction of their organization. What also benefits the Blue Jackets in hiring Kekalainen when they did is that, as a result of trading Rick Nash to the New York Rangers and Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings, besides appearing to be positioned for one of the top picks in the upcoming 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Blue Jackets will also receive both the Rangers and Kings 1st round selections in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, a draft that is supposed to be one of the deepest drafts since the 2008 draft with such stars as Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Pietrangelo, Erik Karlsson and Jordan Eberle. And, in case you were wondering who the Blue Jackets selected with their first pick (6th overall) in that draft, it was Nikita Filatov, a selection that, even for the Blue Jackets, could have easily been their greatest bust.
So while this historic hire of Kekalainen is seen as a trailblazing move, for the Blue Jackets long-suffering fans, for the first time in quite a long time, they have been given legitimate hope for the ultimate and only quest that matters, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Of course, the path that will now be taken is “Brick by Brick” but at least now they have the right brick builder.