Together in St. Louis, John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen never had instant success, and the two aren't always credited with spurring the Blues' turnaround. From a team out of the playoffs in five of six seasons, the Blues competed for the Presidents' Trophy last season. They're off to a poor start this season, but that's more due to variance at the start of their season than their play.
Thing about the Blues is that they have a home-grown squad. Of their 18 ice-time leaders this season, ten were draft picks, and five were acquired in trades at young ages. Kekalainen's fingerprints as Director of Amateur Scouting are all over the lineup. He was in St. Louis from 2002-2010, and during the last season he was surely instrumental in convincing the Blues to trade the teams' 2009 first round-select David Rundblad for a younger, flashier, and better, Vladimir Tarasenko.
Davidson and Kekalainen are re-united in Columbus, as Davidson hired the first Finnish general manager last night to succeed Scott Howson as the teams' third general manager. It's a gutsy move by Columbus and one that comes past overdue.
Oftentimes, struggling franchises like to return to "grassroots" type of coaching and management rather than think differently or broaden a search. You typically get failing franchises ending up with cast-offs and former fired GMs of other franchises, resulting in a perpetual cycle of mediocrity. Florida got Dale Tallon. Calgary got Jay Feaster. Toronto got Dave Nonis.
Good on Columbus for introducing some new blood into the system, in more ways than one.
Where the Blues succeeded in their GM search and where a team like, say, Toronto, failed, is that they were willing to go outside of normal hockey circles. Davidson has worked with Kekalainen before, so it's not completely off the board, but the man has been in the Finnish league with Jokerit for two and a half seasons, managing a different type of game and a different style of play. It's similar to Marc Trestman being hired by the Chicago Bears as their head coach, a coach who had success as an offensive co-ordinator in the NFL, but never got a shot at the head job until he earned it unconventionally as the coach of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, winning a pair of championships.
Kekalainen has an added perspective and, not being a product of the Canadian hockey sausage factory like Doug MacLean and Scott Howson, won't be dictated by his past experiences. Currently, the analytical section of the hockey blogosphere are going nuts over a blurb Kekalainen wrote for Hockey Prospectus' 2013 annual:
"Stats are facts...In the long run they hardly ever lie. Thorough analytical work, like that done by Hockey Prospectus, is needed to make a proper evaluation of them."
If Kekalainen is reading Hockey Prospectus, he knows just how valuable one of his former St. Louis draft picks, Nikita Nikitin, is for Columbus. Last season, Nikitin and his defensive partner Fedor Tyutin drove the play forward playing top defensive minutes. If Kekalainen is reading Hockey Prospectus, he probably knows that Columbus were a solid puck-possession team for much of the season—goaltending was their major issue—and the trading of three centremen in Jeff Carter, Antoine Vermette and Samuel Pahlsson was overreacting to a common problem.
I'm excited to see what Kekalainen does in this situation because Columbus entered the year with few tangible assets. Howson negotiated a good return on Rick Nash, but there's no core franchise piece or pieces that can be built around. That could change this upcoming summer, as it's been pointed out many times today that the Jackets have three first round choices. Their own will likely be very high, but the picks from the Rangers and the Kings will likely be in the late first round. It's from that spot, however, that the Blues drafted T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron in the past.
Unfortunately, the Jackets are in tough when it comes to their own top prospects. Ryan Murray has missed much of his 18-year-old season in Everett to a dislocated shoulder. Goaltender prospect Oscar Dansk got off to a cold start in his first OHL season. Ryan Johansen was sent down to the AHL earlier this season. The team's top scorer is the defenceman Tyutin, and the team's top scorer under the age of 24 is the winger Matt Calvert.
Columbus present a problem that can't be fixed by a conventional or grassroots approach. I don't know Kekalainen's management style, but he has an exceptional track record as director of scouting in St. Louis, and I admire his endorsement of analytics. Any new way of thinking about the game should be welcome to hockey, and the fact that it took up until 30 per cent of the players in the league were European for one to be hired as a GM means it's an overdue move.
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