Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson has already proven capable of turning a franchise around and he's well on his way to doing it once more with the hiring of general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen. Davidson believes in building a team from within with a focus on the drafting and development of top talent, a formula that helped the St. Louis Blues climb out of the basement of the Western Conference to become a top contender in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets have never shown to be a threat in the Western Conference, finishing higher than No. 4 in the Central division just once and making the playoffs in just a single season since coming into the NHL in 2000. The reason for the franchise's struggles are not hard to pinpoint, especially for a team that has swung and missed with each attempt to become competitive with short-term fixes several times in the past decade.
Since the franchise's first draft in 2000, the Blue Jackets have drafted just five players with more than 100 NHL points with the team that selected them. All five players were top ten picks in the draft with only Rick Nash and defenseman Rostislav Klesla being considered actual "franchise players." Outside of the first round the Blue Jackets have whiffed on securing long-term talent to stick with the franchise, with perhaps winger Jared Boll considered one of the lone late-round finds -- who has just 47 points in 358 NHL games.
The inability of the Blue Jackets to build a team from within coincided with an ill-fated attempt to build a contender in a single offseason. Former GM Scott Howson fell victim to other general managers around the NHL, mortgaging what flimsy future promise the Blue Jackets might have had with the trades involving Jeff Carter and the overspending on defenseman James Wisniewski. Columbus then lost Rick Nash, freshly inked to a 8-year contract, for a return that did little to fill the holes that had been created.
So, Davidson now turns to Kekäläinen, a revered hockey mind known for his scouting and drafting prowess. Davidson working with the Finnish-born executive in St. Louis, where Kekäläinen served as the director of amateur scouting until 2010.
There's no doubt that Kekäläinen's biggest impact will be felt where the Blue Jackets have struggled the most since coming into the NHL -- the drafting and development of legitimate NHL talent. As player personnel director and amateur scouting director with the Senators and Blues, Kekäläinen's name sits on top of a very impressive list of draft finds -- both in the first round and later.
Sami Salo, Andreas Dickell, Chris Phillips, Magnus Arvedson, Chris Neil, Marian Hossa Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Martin Havlat, Greg Zanon, Antoine Vermette, Anton Volchenkov, Brooks Laich, Tim Gleason and Jason Spezza are all players drafted under Kekäläinen's watchful eye to have played more than 400 games in the NHL. Most were found outside of the first round.
With St. Louis, as the assistant GM and director of amateur scouting from 2002 to 2010, Kekäläinen helped build the young core of the Blues with the drafting of T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and David Backes, as well as long-time NHLer Lee Stempniak. He'll have a full armory with which to work starting almost immediately, with the Blue Jackets holds three first-round picks in 2013 alone.
"We know how important the draft is especially with a deep draft, and this one is a deep draft," said Davidson during the team's press conference on Wednesday. "As an organization, we've had a number of meetings already trying to set up how we're zeroing in on the draft itself and this is going to give Jarmo some time to jump into this."
Kekäläinen is considered one of the more impressive hockey minds today and has an eye for talent, while also embracing advanced statistics as a proven method of analyzing teams and players. His work ethic and mindset in how to build a team meshes directly with that of Davidson, who passed over Kekäläinen once before when hiring Doug Armstrong in St. Louis, and creates a standard of accountability for the franchise that starts at the very top.
The Blue Jackets struggles through the years can be directly tied to poor management and evaluative decisions by the front office and after the failures of last season -- and the team's struggles to start the year in 2013 -- created the need for a change in culture in Columbus. Kekäläinen is the next step in that change, which began with the hiring of Davidson, and begins the journey for the Blue Jackets in their quest to climb out of long-term obscurity.