Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Davidson Not Perfect, But an Improvement Just the Same

Former St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson appears to be near signing with the Blue Jackets to serve as the team's President of Hockey Operations and suggests that ownership may finally be getting serious about improving the quality of its front office.

Davidson is a rarity in the respect that he isn't an executive coming off a poor performance by his prior franchise.  The Blues finally lived up to the expectations many have held for them since Davidson arrived in St. Louis this past season.  However, the Blues had new ownership and that ownership was anxious to save cash and so Davidson and his comparatively expensive salary was viewed as a luxury they could no longer afford.  With that said, Davidson's departure from St. Louis is also a tell that the new ownership group viewed their GM, Doug Armstrong, as more important in the team's turnaround than Davidson was.

Davidson can be an important piece in the turnaround of the Jackets franchise...if he is a part of the solution and not the whole solution.  He did two key things in St. Louis that the Jackets desperately need.  First, he put "aces in places" by putting the right people in positions to improve the team.  Yes, it ultimately cost him his job and, no, it didn't always work (take a look at the coaching carousel during his tenure).  However, what you get with Davidson is the polar opposite of former president and GM Doug MacLean--a guy who is going to put together a team to handle coaching, day-to-day hockey ops, etc. as opposed to a guy who wants to micromanage the details.  In that respect, Davidson is a manager's manager--a guy that builds a talented team beneath him and steps back to give them room to operate. Second, and equally important for franchises like St. Louis when he arrived and Columbus now, Davidson is more than capable of re-building fan interest. 

Keep in mind that the Blues were in a free fall when he arrived.  This was a storied franchise that had seen a record streak of playoff appearances end and become a perennial bottom dweller.  Their arena was half empty (at best) on most nights.  Which was something for a franchise that helped build the lore of Scotty Bowman who took the team to 3 straight Stanley Cup their first 3 years of existence.  They had the league's worst attendance in 2006-07.  But, not only did Davidson help bring in guys like Armstrong to turn around the franchise's on-ice fortunes, he addressed the team's attendance woes by a series of season ticket promotions.  The most memorable was probably this one--if the Blues failed to make the playoffs in 2010-2011, fans were not obligated to make the payment for the second half of their season ticket price.  The team didn't make the playoffs, but the fanbase was nonetheless reinvigorated.  I remember watching the Blues home games that year and being impressed with the resurgence of the fan base.  They were at 100% of capacity for the season, 7th in the league in attendance.

Davidson and his management team built the Blues from the goal out.  In his 6 drafts with the Blues, they took a defenseman in the first round 4 times.  Tired of their goaltending woes, they went out and swung a trade for Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2010.  They followed that up the next off-season by making an under-the-radar signing of Brian Elliott.  When the team struggled out of the gate in 2011-12 (recall they seemed on a similar fate to the Jackets at that moment), the Blues management didn't hesitate and brought in former Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock to get the team's defense to perform as they felt it should.  The Blues turned it around and had one of the best records in hockey.

Again, a lot of the credit goes to Armstrong.  But Davidson deserves his due.  He was the guy who brought Armstrong in not initially as GM, but as understudy to Larry Pleau.  Given that Armstrong was nominated for GM of the Year, this apparently worked out pretty well.

He'll have a familiar set of tasks in Columbus to what he had when he arrived in St. Louis.  But clearly he loves a challenge.  What we can expect from Davidson is a polished voice coming from the top of the management chain--Doug MacLean without the snake oil.  He's also someone who is going to build a culture of accountability--there were other ways he could have boosted ticket sales, but the way they did with the "Playoffs or Bust" approach went a long way to building credibility with the fans in St. Louis. 

His biggest challenge will be what to do with the rest of the hockey ops team.  Don't necessarily expect Craig Patrick to disappear immediately.  Patrick may be crucial for Davidson to quickly evaluate Howson and others in the hockey ops department.  Davidson's success or failure ultimately will be determined by his decisions with regards to who he hires and fires beneath him.  If he pulls it off again with another franchise at the bottom of the standings he could be as legendary as that Scotty Bowman guy.

--Capn Cornelius