Columbus Blue Jackets, Jarmo Kekalainen, John Davidson, Long Read, Scott Howson, Top Story

How These Columbus Blue Jackets Were Built

At long last, the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans have something to celebrate that will last a lifetime.

The Blue Jackets swept the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning out of the first round of the 2019 NHL Playoffs in stunning fashion. The hockey world will remember this for a long time.

Hockey is a copycat league. If someone is successful at something, others will try to do the same thing in the hopes they can get a similar result. The question that a lot of people want to know is just how these Blue Jackets got to this point?

This was a team that had never won three games in a playoff series let alone win a round in the Stanley Cup playoffs. How did this team come together and stun the hockey world?

A lot of fans will point to the 2019 trade deadline as a big reason. While this has merit, the building of these Blue Jackets started a long time ago. This was at a time when the franchise was struggling and trying to find their way. That’s where this story begins.

We have to turn our clocks back to the year 2008 to get the full picture, a full four years before John Davidson and five years before Jarmo Kekalainen came to the Blue Jackets. We will revisit important decisions and transactions that took place. What might have seemed small and insignificant at the time in some cases turned out to be a catalyst to what we’re seeing today.

Kick back, relax. Let’s take a trip down Blue Jackets’ memory lane.

These Blue Jackets were being built well before John Davidson arrived in October 2012. (Photo courtesy of Columbus Blue Jackets)

Setting the Scene: 2007-08 Season

Let’s recall what the Blue Jackets looked like in 2007-08 to begin our story. Rick Nash was on his way to a 38-goal season. GM Scott Howson was in the first year of his new job as the second GM in Blue Jackets’ history. Ken Hitchcock was the head coach who would eventually lead the team to their first ever playoff berth the year after.

But we focus on the captain of the Blue Jackets at the time and someone who if you were to mention their name to a fan today, emotions will rise up. His name was Adam Foote.

The date was Feb 26, 2008. It was trade deadline day. The Blue Jackets were trying to re-sign Foote but were having difficulty meeting whatever his asking price was. So on the same day they traded Sergei Fedorov to the Washington Capitals, the Blue Jackets traded Foote back to his former team the Colorado Avalanche.

In that trade, the Blue Jackets acquired two draft picks, a conditional first in 2008 or 2009 depending on if the Avalanche made the playoffs and a conditional fourth in 2009 if the Avalanche re-signed Foote.

The Blue Jackets got a first in 2008 but ended up trading that to Philadelphia in the R.J. Umberger deal. But because Foote was re-signed, the Blue Jackets got a fourth in 2009. We will revisit this in a moment.

But first, the Blue Jackets finished with a franchise record 80 points in 2008 but missed the playoffs by a wide margin. So it was off to the 2008 draft.

And oh boy. Although the Blue Jackets started the draft with two first round picks, it was what they did later that is having big influence today.

Ah yes, the Nikita Filatov draft. Ugh. Filly. Still doesn’t do rebounds to this day. While players like Jordan Eberle, Erik Karlsson and Josh Bailey were available, the Blue Jackets turned to the Russian winger. By 2010, he was loaned to Russia and by 2011, he was traded for a third round pick to Ottawa.

But not all hope is lost! Later in the 2008 draft, the Blue Jackets used the 157th overall pick to select someone you know quite well, Cam Atkinson. This certainly helps ease some of that pain considering how important he is to the team.

Now back to the 2009 draft and that conditional fourth rounder. With the 94th pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets selected the guy that would eventually dangle Victor Hedman in Game 2 against Tampa Bay, David Savard. The date was June 27, 2009.

David Savard Mark Letestu Cam Atkinson Blue Jackets
Cam Atkinson and David Savard each marked the beginning of how the Blue Jackets’ roster would look in 2019. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

2009-2012: The Dark Ages

You’d think after a playoff appearance things were finally starting to look up for the Blue Jackets. Well, not so much. Just look at the overall record by season during “the Dark Ages.”

  • 2009-10: 32-35-15, 79 points.
  • 2010-11: 34-35-13, 81 points. (They did draft Boone Jenner in 2011, one of the only good things to come out of this era.)
  • 2011-12: 29-46-7, 65 points.

The way the 2011 season started ended up costing Scott Arniel his job. He was fired on Jan 9, 2012 and replaced by Todd Richards. Still, there was plenty of drama going on within the walls of Nationwide Arena.

Word came up that Nash wanted out. If it wasn’t bad enough the season was off the rails, having your captain and franchise player asking for a trade just rubs more salt in the already open wound you have.

And if that wasn’t enough, the draft lottery fell in favor of the Edmonton Oilers, allowing them to select first instead of the Blue Jackets. If it could go wrong, it did go wrong.

But let’s revisit the 2012 trade deadline. This is where we start to see some things happen that will eventually super charge the Blue Jackets although no one at the time thought anything of it. At that trade deadline, center Sammy Pahlsson was dealt to Vancouver.

The return was two fourth-round picks. Seems small, right? Well not so much in this case. With the 95th pick of the 2012 draft, the Blue Jackets picked Josh Anderson. And with the other, it was packaged in a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers to land Sergei Bobrovsky.

Where would the Blue Jackets be without Anderson and Bobrovsky?

These moves were made prior to the Davidson/Kekalainen era, but are a key reason why history was made this past week. You just never know how trades and draft picks will work out. Considering Ryan Murray was the second pick of the 2012 draft, the Blue Jackets got a good defenseman while the Oilers got Nail Yakupov.

Columbus Blue Jackets Sammy Pahlsson’s trade to Vancouver opened the door for both Josh Anderson and Sergei Bobrovsky to join the team. (Dave Gainer/THW)

One Captain Out; An Eventual One In

Now came the moment of truth. A couple of huge deals came upon the opening of free agency in the summer of 2012.

The first one involved defenseman Marc Methot. Methot was dealt to the Ottawa Senators on July 1, 2012 in exchange for the current captain of these historic Blue Jackets Nick Foligno.

Who knew this was the way things would work out? In Foligno, they acquired a future face of the franchise in every possible way. Howson wanted to change things up after a dismal end to the 2012 season. This trade signaled that. Now in 2019, Foligno is a hero to the Blue Jackets.

Then it was time to trade the face of the franchise at that time in Nash. Finally on July 23, 2012, Nash became a New York Ranger. In return, the Blue Jackets got Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a 2013 first-round pick (became Kerby Rychel) in exchange for Nash, Steven Delisle and a 2013 third-round pick (became Pavel Buchnevich).

Dubinsky is enjoying a resurgence this season playing important bottom-six minutes. We’ll discuss Anisimov later as another trade helped open the door to other possibilities. Rychel was a bust but credit to Columbus for at least getting something out of it that is helping this year’s team in Scott Harrington. With all those injuries on defense, Harrington’s steady play has given the Blue Jackets a boost.

Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky
Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky is enjoying a resurgence in 2018-19. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

John Davidson Brings a New Culture

In the fall of 2012, owner John P. McConnell made a decision that has helped shape the Blue Jackets into who they are today. He brought in one of the most respected men in the game of hockey in John Davidson.

The date was Oct 24, 2012. This date is one of the most important dates in franchise history. Recall what McConnell said of Davidson that day.

“This is a very exciting day for the Columbus Blue Jackets and our fans as John Davidson is a proven winner who brings a tremendous amount of experience, knowledge and leadership to our organization. We believe he is the perfect person to lead our hockey operations efforts.”

His first task was to evaluate all levels of the franchise. This led to the date Feb 12, 2013, another milestone day in franchise history. This was the day the Blue Jackets moved on from GM Howson. Then the next day, Davidson announced the hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen as the new general manager.

What did Davidson say of Kekalainen that day? “Hockey is a truly global game and there are very few people whose knowledge of the game in North America and abroad surpasses that of Jarmo Kekalainen. He is intelligent, hard-working and a tremendous evaluator of talent. He is a terrific addition to the Blue Jackets family and will play an important role in our efforts to move our organization forward in the coming years.”

Here we are on the verge of the second round of the 2019 playoffs and the duo of Davidson/Kekalainen have stayed true to their word. Both men helped change the culture in Columbus to that of winning and accountability. That five-month stretch in 2012 and 2013 cannot be overstated in its importance. Who knows where this team would be had they went in a different direction?

Other Important Moments

  • June 2013: Alexander Wennberg, Rychel and Marko Dano all drafted in the first round by the Blue Jackets. But their best pick of all may have been the one at 89th overall, Oliver Bjorkstrand. He helped lead Lake Erie to a Calder Cup and is playing the best hockey of his career including scoring the game winning goal in Game 4 against Tampa Bay.
  • April 2015: Blue Jackets sign Markus Hannikainen to an ELC. Although he’s down on the depth chart now, he played his best hockey of his career this past regular season helping the Blue Jackets get important points.
  • June 2015: Blue Jackets add a pair of key defensemen in Zach Werenski (8th overall) and Markus Nutivaara (189th overall). They also signed Dean Kukan to an ELC. He’s playing big minutes this postseason.
  • January 2016: Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. In one of the best hockey moves of recent memory, the Blue Jackets get their anchor, right-shot defenseman and an eventual Norris winner. He scored the game-winner in Game 1 against the Lightning.
  • June 2016: Scott Harrington brought on to salvage something from the Kerby Rychel experience. But more importantly, the Blue Jackets won the third draft lottery and then shocked the hockey world. They said no to Jesse Puljujarvi and said yes to Pierre-Luc Dubois. We are not here had the Blue Jackets listened to the majority. They went on their own list and got rewarded for it. Dubois is now a top-six center and a major contributor to these Blue Jackets.
  • June 2017: Back to Anisimov. He helped the Blue Jackets land Brandon Saad. Then Saad helped land Artemi Panarin. Whoa! So the full trade was Panarin, Tyler Motte, and a 2017 6th rounder (Jonathan Davidsson) for Saad, Anton Forsberg and a 2015 fifth rounder. Panarin is the game changer the Blue Jackets needed. Although Motte went to Vancouver in the Thomas Vanek deal, Davidsson was packaged with Vitaly Abramov to help land Matt Duchene. Talk about asset management. A player drafted in the third and sixth helped land a game-changing center at this past deadline. If you’re going to be successful, you must maximize your assets. These Blue Jackets have done that in spades.
  • Also June 2017: Thanks to the expansion draft, the Blue Jackets didn’t have a first or second rounder in the 2017 draft. No bother to Kekalainen. He traded Keegan Kolesar to Vegas for a draft pick. That draft pick became Alexandre Texier. Needless to say that’s worked out well for the Blue Jackets. He has ice water in his veins and is a good lesson in drafting. Impact players can be had outside the first round.
  • And to wrap things up, Adam Clendening and Riley Nash were each signed on July 1, 2018. Clendening slid into the lineup and helped the Blue Jackets win Game 4 while Nash has found a home with Jenner and Dubinsky as a true checking line playing important minutes. Then of course there was the trade deadline in 2019. Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kincaid provided need depth in all positions.
Columbus Blue Jackets Ryan Dzingel
Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Dzingel helped finalize this current roster at the 2019 trade deadline. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The End Result

The end result of everything listed above is a team who made history in 2019 knocking off a 62-win team in round one with the hopes of lifting the Stanley Cup. What did we learn here?

While making one important move is crucial (see Jones and Duchene), it’s a series of good moves over several years that make the dream work. It puts Davidson’s brick-by-brick talk in proper perspective.

The moves from 2008 were just as important as the ones made in 2019. It started with Cam Atkinson. It ended with the 2019 trade deadline. There were a lot of things in-between.

The end result of years of hard work, dedication and tough decisions culminated in over 19,000 fans releasing 20 years of emotions. It was the perfect celebration but only just the beginning.

These Blue Jackets are now built to chase a Stanley Cup. Whether it was the draft, free agency or trades, all played a role in making the 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets historic.

Want to build a winner? Put in the work like the Blue Jackets did and you’ll get there too.

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