Hockey fans enjoyed a good laugh -- or a good cry, depending on your perspective -- over the SportsCenter clip last week in which Stephen A. Smith made a reference to the "three ties" in the Chicago Blackhawks' record, despite the fact that NHL games haven't ended in deadlocks since before the 2004-05 lockout. But there's something else of note in that clip that should make viewers roll their eyes: The part towards the end where Smith says that he didn't know the NHL had a team in Columbus. One probably shouldn't put much stock in anything Smith says during the clip, but it really is the ultimate indignity: He doesn't see the Blue Jackets as perennial losers, but only because he doesn't know they exist in the first place.
Not that the Blue Jackets have given anyone much reason to learn who they are since entering the league in 2000. They've qualified for the playoffs exactly once, and have never won a postseason game. They've finished last in their division in six of their eleven seasons prior to this one, including in each of the last three. Last year, they had the worst record in all of hockey -- think of it as winning some sort of Anti-Presidents Trophy -- and to add insult to other insult, they didn't even win the draft lottery and the right to select Nail Yakupov first overall. Despite employing one of the NHL's most exciting players in Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets failed to significantly improve their place in the standings, build a fan base, and gain any sort of widespread recognition. They really couldn't catch a break, either: The eyes of the hockey world were supposed to be focused on Columbus earlier this winter for the NHL All-Star game… except it was cancelled because of the lockout.
So in other words, things have long been pretty bleak in Columbus. But you know what? As I write this, the franchise is poised -- maybe, finally -- to start turning things around. Two things are happening simultaneously that suggest the culture in Columbus could soon be changing -- one affecting the product on the ice, and the other related to building interest off of it.
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The symbolic end of an era in Columbus came last summer, when they traded team captain Rick Nash to the Rangers in exchange for a package that frankly wasn't as good as the one GM Scott Howson had been pushing for at the 2012 trade deadline. Nash, the star of many a YouTube highlight compilation, had long been the face of the franchise -- one of the few bright spots on some truly terrible hockey teams. But while the trade represented the end of something in Columbus, it didn't necessarily represent the beginning of anything new.
That moment came a few months later, when the organization hired former Blues executive John Davidson as team president. Davidson, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, has one of the great hockey minds around, and had gotten results in the St. Louis front office. The season before he was hired, 2005-06, the Blues had finished with 57 points -- worst in the NHL. By the time he left St. Louis after last season, he'd built the Blues into a team that challenged for the 2012 Presidents Trophy, finishing that season with 109 points and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. He did it by assembling an impressive cast of young talent: drafting players like Alex Pietrangelo and David Perron, acquiring a promising player like Kevin Shattenkirk via trade, and allowing players who pre-dated his arrival like David Backes and T.J. Oshie to develop into impact players. (Also drafted under J.D.'s watch? Vladimir Tarasenko, who'd been dazzling fans in his rookie season this year before landing on injured reserve.)
Davidson, of course, isn't solely responsible for those moves -- more on that in a moment -- and the turnaround in St. Louis wasn't immediate. (Davidson's Blues made the playoffs just once prior to last season, but point totals trended upwards during Davidson's tenure, culminating with the breakthrough 2011-12 season.) But that's the right blueprint for what has to happen in Columbus. The Blue Jackets don't need a quick fix, and this season's brought both awful stretches (a 2-5-1 January and a 3-7-2 February) and an impressive one (they're currently riding a five-game winning streak). Davidson's only been on the job a few months, and he's still in something of an evaluation phase, in which he'll get a better understanding of what the Blue Jackets have, and what they need.
But he's already made his first major move -- firing Howson last month and bringing in Jarmo Kekalainen, the GM of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League who'd previously spend eight years in St. Louis, most recently as the Blues' assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting. Hiring a GM from a team overseas was something of an outside-the-box move -- Kekalainen made history as the NHL's first European GM -- but it wasn't too unconventional. Kekalainen has plenty of NHL experience, and worked with Davidson in St. Louis. There, Kekalainen oversaw the amateur draft for the organization, and that might be what makes him such a promising hire.
Drafting and developing talent is so important in the modern NHL, and it'll be crucial as the Blue Jackets try to build a consistently competitive team. The timing is sort of perfect: With Kekalainen on the job and Davidson overseeing hockey operations, the Blue Jackets have three first-round picks in the upcoming draft. The Blue Jackets already have some pieces that figure to be a part of the team Davidson and Kekalainen eventually assemble, but some of the core pieces of that future team haven't even been drafted yet. Part of believing a team can turn itself around is having a faith in the person, or people, making the key decisions. And Davidson's the type of person one's inclined to put their faith in. It won't happen overnight. It might not happen at all. But the first pieces are in place for the Blue Jackets to put a product on the ice that fans in Columbus can get excited about.
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Now about those fans in Columbus: The Blue Jackets fans have finished in the bottom five of the NHL in attendance in each of the past three seasons, and have finished in bottom third of the league every year since 2007-08. This year, they're averaging 13,955 fans per game -- or 28th in the league -- despite playing in an arena that features a freaking canon that explodes with every Blue Jackets goal. (Seriously, check that bad boy out.)
A lot of those attendance issues, of course, have to do with the product on the ice. But folks in the Columbus area don't have it easy: Despite playing in the Eastern time zone, the Blue Jackets currently play in the Western Conference, which means lots of late start times on the road. And when a team is struggling to carve out a place for itself in the public consciousness, any impediment to following the team can hurt.
But this issue will soon work itself out: The Players Association last week approved a realignment plan that would, among other things, see the Blue Jackets move into the Eastern Conference next season, and specifically, into the new Atlantic Division. This means tons of reasonable start times for fans watching at home in Columbus, and also allows the Blue Jackets try to build up a real rivalry with the Penguins, located less than 200 miles away in Pittsburgh. (There's a financial benefit, too, besides all additional tickets they'll sell to Pens fans interested in making the drive to Nationwide Arena: The earlier road start times could also increase the value of the team's television contract.)
It could be years before Davidson and the rest of his front office mold the Blue Jackets into a contender, and he knows it won't happen overnight, particularly as the team moves into what could be a very competitive division. But the pieces are in place to put the pieces in place. It's all still a bit abstract at this point, dependent on players that have not been drafted, let alone developed. But if the product on the ice improves according to plan, the team will finally be in the best possible position to win over would-be fans, and energize the ones it already has. There is much work to be done, but work is under way.
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