That’s the puzzle facing the Columbus Blue Jackets’ new president of hockey operations John Davidson, who earned plaudits for his role in resurrecting the St. Louis Blues.
Davidson hopes to replicate that success with the Blue Jackets, a franchise which has wallowed in mediocrity since its inception in 2000.
The solution is strong management, which the Blue Jackets have lacked throughout their history, first with Doug MacLean, then with Scott Howson.
Davidson’s first step to address the issue was replacing Howson with Jarmo Kekalainen. A former Blues assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting, Kekalainen helped bring Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Patrik Berglund and David Perron to St. Louis.
The Blue Jackets history of poor management isn’t news to their fans, but for most NHL fans who’ve only paid a cursory glance at the Columbus franchise, it’s worth examining its role in the club’s current state.
Since its inception in 2000, the Blue Jackets draft record ranks the worst in the league over that period.
Their best selection was forward Rick Nash, who for years was their franchise player. But after waiting in vain for the Jackets to build a contending roster around him, Nash requested a trade last season, and in July 2012 was dealt to the New York Rangers.
Among the Jackets few notable picks was Jakub Voracek, who is developing into a reliable scoring winger. Unfortunately, he’s doing that with the Philadelphia Flyers, where he was dealt in Howson’s ill-fated trade for Jeff Carter in 2011.
Most of their other once-notable prospects either turned into spectacular busts (Nikolai Zherdev, Gilbert Brule, Nikita Filatov), average players (Rostislav Klesla, Kris Russell, Steve Mason), or had their promise cut short by injury (Pascal Leclaire).
Howson did select promising defenseman Ryan Murray last summer with the second overall pick. He also collected two additional first round picks in this year’s entry draft. Given the Blue Jackets current position in the standings, they’ll be in line to select a projected “can’t-miss” kid like Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin.
This could finally be the year in which the Jackets get it right in the draft more often than they get it wrong.
Drafting well is key to putting this club on the path to respectability, but so is the ability to make good trades. Unfortunately, the Jackets history in that department was only marginally better than their draft record.
Over the years, the Blue Jackets have acquired some good players, like Ray Whitney, Jaroslav Spacek, R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Nikita Nikitin. Unfortunately, they’ve lost more trades than they’ve won.
Among their notable trade failures: Trading a promising Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim as part of the return for a fading, expensive Sergei Fedorov. Trading away a proven leader in Jason Chimera for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina. Acquiring Alex Svitov for Darryl Sydor. Trading Curtis Glencross for Dick Tarnstrom. Dealing away Adam McQuaid for a fifth round pick.
In acquiring Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first round pick from the Rangers in last summer’s Nash trade, Howson got the best return he could. Maybe that first round pick could blossom into a star, but while Dubinsky, Anisimov and Erixon bring depth to the Jackets, none of them are a franchise player like Nash.
Howson did flip an unhappy Jeff Carter to the LA Kings last sason for skilled defenseman Jack Johnson, who seems pleased to be playing in Ohio. If Johnson doesn’t turn into the contractual problem child he was for the Kings and the Carolina Hurricanes before them, he could prove a worthwhile addition.
Still, in acquiring Carter two years ago, Howson parted with the promising Voracek as part of the return. That deal turned into a flop for the Blue Jackets, largely due to Carter’s unhappiness over being dealt to a bottom feeder like the Blue Jackets.
Free agency has also been a problem area for the Blue Jackets. Part of the reason is their long time status among the league’s non-contenders hasn’t made them a destination of choice for free agent talent.
Their brief forays into the market for notable talent often ended badly.
Adam Foote famously signed with them in the aftermath of the season-killing NHL lockout in 2005, but his presence did little to lift the Jackets, and how he engineered his departure remains a sore point.
The less said about the Mike Commodore, Anson Carter and Mike Peca experiences, the better.
Kristian Huselius and Vaclav Prospal were decent signings, but they were support players, not stars who can carry a team. Huselius’ tenure ended badly, accusing the Blue Jackets of rushing him back from a chest injury, leading to a season-ending ankle injury.
James Wisniewski’s rights were acquired via trade from Buffalo in late June 2011 and he was inked to a 6-year, $33 million contract. Wisniewski’s a decent defenseman, but he’s been plagued by injuries since joining the Blue Jackets, and is grossly overpaid for his services.
They’ve also failed to retain key talent, losing players like Whitney, Spacek and Ron Hainsey because management couldn’t or wouldn’t re-sign them.
As Kekalainen and Davidson set about rebuilding the Blue Jackets roster, they’ll also have to decide if current coach Todd Richards is the right man to guide this team toward playoff contention, or if someone with more NHL experience would be better suited for the role.
Compared to the Jackets draft, trade and free agent history, they haven’t done badly in the coaching department, with such notables as MacLean, Dave King and Ken Hitchcock serving as bench bosses at various points in their history.
Hitchcock, the best of the bunch, has the honor of being the only one to coach the Blue Jackets to their only playoff berth in franchise history.
Davidson and Kekalainen face a daunting task rebuilding a Blue Jackets roster currently little better than it was during its expansion year into a perennial playoff contender.
At the same time, they must convince jaded Columbus hockey fans this rebuild won’t suffer the same disappointing fate as the previous efforts under the former general managers.