Discovering Columbus: With John Davidson and Marian Gaborik, Blue Jackets headed in right direction

Since joining the Columbus Blue Jackets, John Davidson has read some puzzling things about his new city and new franchise. Columbus can’t support an NHL team. The Jackets are going to move.

“That’s nuts,” said Davidson, who became the Jackets’ president of hockey operations in October. “I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know how people surmise that. This is a strong, committed, good ownership group. We’re not going anywhere.”

Actually, the Jackets finally are going somewhere, in a good sense.

They acquired star sniper Marian Gaborik before Wednesday’s trade deadline. He was the first star Thursday night in a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, scoring the winning goal, adding an assist and telling reporters: “I’m glad to be a part of this.”

They entered Friday night on an 11-2-3 run. They were only one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and they were about to play the eighth-place St. Louis Blues.

Yes, the Blues had two games in hand, and yes, the Edmonton Oilers were also in front of the Jackets because of tie-breakers. But landing a guy like Gaborik is a step, playing big games is a step and competing for a playoff spot is a step.

If the Jackets make the playoffs for only the second time in their 12-season history, that will be a huge step. But even if they don’t, there will be reason for optimism. They have assets – most notably three first-round picks in what is supposed to be a strong draft. They have a promising management team that has added a spark in the short term and most importantly is trying to build for the long term.

“We’ve done our best to try to stimulate the culture of the club,” Davidson said. “That’s part of what we’re in the middle of doing. What we want to try to do is have this club become a good club for a longer period of time, not just a quick fix. It’s got to be something that’s going to be together for a while.”

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Where does the stuff about Columbus come from? How do people surmise the Jackets are in trouble? It’s not hard to figure out. Columbus is a new NHL market. The Jackets have struggled on the ice and at the box office. Some other markets want teams, and if the Atlanta Thrashers can become the Winnipeg Jets …

Columbus is like Atlanta in one respect: The NHL has failed the city more than the city has failed the NHL. The Thrashers made the playoffs once in 11 seasons in Atlanta and got swept. The Jackets made the playoffs once in their first 11 seasons in Columbus and got swept. That’s not how you plant a seed. Why would anyone expect new fans to keep buying into bad hockey?

But ownership was a mess in Atlanta, and it isn’t in Columbus. And say what you want about the South, but Columbus isn’t in it. If the Jackets reach their potential as a team, then Columbus has a fair chance to reach its potential as a market. It has a ton of potential. Always has.

Ever been to Columbus? Ever experienced a Michigan-Ohio State football game? Ever walked through the Arena District before the Blue Jackets host the rival Detroit Red Wings and seen the crowds milling on the plaza, streaming in and out of all the restaurants and bars? There is plenty of disposable income and passion for sports.

Ever been to Nationwide Arena? The Jackets have one of the best facilities in the NHL, a beautiful brick building complete with an attached practice rink. Former Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock often calls it the best facility in the world.

“It’s an untapped hockey market, and I think JD knows that,” said Hitchcock, who led the Jackets to their lone playoff appearance in 2009 and now coaches the Blues. “I think that he’s a very smart hockey man, and he knows what he’s doing.”

Davidson didn’t want to stay out of hockey after he left the Blues last year. He had helped turn around the franchise and wanted to go somewhere like St. Louis. The more he researched Columbus and the Jackets, the more he saw the potential and embraced the challenge.

The Jackets lacked leadership in the past. Former general manager Scott Howson had little help in a thin front office, which is why the Jackets eventually hired veteran executive Craig Patrick as an advisor. Howson was unfailingly polite but kept a low profile.

Davidson has a high profile as a former goaltender, broadcaster and executive. He has media savvy as well as hockey savvy. He can be an ambassador as well as an administrator – style with substance.

“He can talk, but deep down, he really knows players,” Hitchcock said.

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After evaluating the organization and his options, Davidson replaced Howson with Jarmo Kekalainen on Feb. 13. Why Kekalainen, the NHL’s first European GM?

The Jackets’ greatest weakness has been drafting. Despite their dismal records and high picks, they have failed to find and develop enough difference-makers. Rick Nash, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, was an exception and became the captain of the team and the face of the franchise. But although he loved Columbus, he got fed up and asked out, and now he’s gone.

Kekalainen’s strength is drafting. Although Davidson plucked him from the Finnish Elite League, he had worked with him in St. Louis. Kekalainen was the Blues’ assistant GM and amateur scouting director when they drafted players like David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo. Before that, he oversaw the draft for the Ottawa Senators when they selected the likes of Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat.

“He was great for the Blues,” said Backes when Kekalainen was hired by Columbus. “He’ll be great for them – hopefully not too great.”

Too late.

Howson did leave the Jackets with a good goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a deep defense corps, not to mention those three first-round picks. They are in playoff contention, even though they are the worst offensive team in the league (2.32 goals per game), because they rank 11th defensively (2.54).

Now they have added Gaborik, who has scored 30 to 42 goals seven times in his NHL career and has another season on his contract, and they have done it the right way.

The last time the Jackets acquired a star sniper, they traded for Jeff Carter without checking with him first. Carter didn’t want to leave the Philadelphia Flyers. He went underground for a while. He sulked after he resurfaced. He was shipped out before he finished his first season.

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This time the Jackets checked with Gaborik, who was unhappy with the New York Rangers. They sold him on the city and the team. He waived his no-trade clause and walked into a comfortable dressing room, where he knows several former Rangers teammates, where he even knows the trainer because they both once worked in Minnesota.

“It’s seamless,” Davidson said. “He fits right in.”

The Jackets gave up a lot for Gaborik, but not too much – a first-round pick who never lived up to expectations (Derick Brassard), a heart-and-soul player who was out with a broken collarbone (Derrick Dorsett) and a first-round pick (John Moore) who will be replaced by another first-round pick (Ryan Murray) on defense one day.

They hope Gaborik will play well and sign an extension, and they hope to surround him with more talent after the previous administration failed to surround Nash. Davidson said they will “slowly chip away at getting a team that’s going to have great chemistry.”

If they do, the fans will finally have something to watch – and they’ll be able to watch not only in the seats, but on television at a reasonable hour. The NHL made it a priority to move Detroit and Columbus to the East in realignment, so they would no longer be Eastern time-zone teams playing in the West with too many of their road games starting past 9 and 10 p.m.

Assuming the Phoenix Coyotes don’t relocate and realignment isn’t upset, the Jackets will lose the Wings as division rivals next season, but they’ll gain the Pittsburgh Penguins – the team of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that plays in a hockey hotbed even closer than Detroit. They will have the Rangers and Flyers coming into their building regularly, too.

“As good as Pittsburgh is, I don’t know if you want to see them much,” Davidson said. “But it’s important for us to take advantage of those situations. I’m quite excited about it.”

Finally, Columbus has something to be excited about.

Which means, finally, Columbus is something to be excited about.

“I know it’s a good market,” Davidson said. “We just have to do our part. I think we’re on our way.”

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