John Davidson is in a tough spot after undergoing back surgery, but not even his rigid recovery stipulations can put a damper on the news released Thursday by the Blue Jackets.
Davidson, the team's president of hockey operations and alternate governor, has reached agreement on a multi-year contract extension - along with general manager Jarmo Kekalainen - while assistant GM Bill Zito received a contract extension and promotion to associate GM.
What it all means, ultimately, is the Blue Jackets are keeping their hockey leadership group together. They'll continue an effort that began in earnest six years ago, when Davidson was hired after a 2011-12 season in which Columbus finished last in the NHL with 65 points.
Since that point, Davidson has focused his efforts on overseeing a culture shift within the organization - which has adopted a winning attitude along the way. The Jackets have made three of the franchise's four appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the past five years - including the past two in a row as an organizational first - and the hope now is to take the next steps toward winning the Stanley Cup.
As the start of training camp draws closer, BlueJackets.com caught up with Davidson recently for a chat about the state of the organization, the job Kekalainen and the rest of his hockey-ops staff are doing, last season's stinging loss to the Washington Capitals and more - including a comment on the situation with Artemi Panarin.
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Here are some takeaway thoughts from that conversation:
On the hockey-ops contract extensions sending a message about how far the Blue Jackets have come and where they plan to go …
"Well, when I was brought here by the ownership, and [Blue Jackets President] Mike Priest, we had some good pieces in place, but a lot of things had to get better. Having known the process or the idea of the process, you have to be patient, you have to have a game plan and you have to have stability. And we've been able to - for the most part - keep that plan in place.
"When you look back, there's always been real big ups and real big downs, but you have to be able to ride with other peoples' emotions and stay with what your own gameplan is. Period. And I'm pretty proud of that. We've made the playoffs three out of five years and almost four - the one year we tied Minnesota and lost the tie-breaker - but it's about more than that. It's about trying to build a team that's going to win and we seem to be going in that direction. We seem to be getting stability in a lot of different areas.
We have a lot more experience. I think the culture of our organization is the best it's been, ever, since this franchise started. Then, with John P. McConnell, the owner of the club, the main owner of all the owners … he really wanted stability. When you go through that awfully emotional process of trying to build a franchise, you can make a change anytime you want. But he stayed with our group and we're still together and we're going to go further as a group. But I'm really happy for the guys that work for us. We've got a good scouting staff. We've got a good staff, period, all the way through. I'm really happy for Jarmo and Bill and everybody else in the organization."
On the importance of getting these extensions done before training camp officially opens Sept. 13 …
"Yeah, sure it is. I remember learning a long time ago in the sports world that going into the last year without a contract can affect the stability of leadership - unless it's something that's been discussed and everybody knows where they stand. But I think it really … it gives security, it makes you feel wanted and it also tells our [team] that this is the group, we're in charge and we're going in the right direction. And that means ownership feels that way. I'm pretty proud, with our group in place, of where we were five years ago to where we are now."
On the bitter loss to the Capitals, whether there were building blocks there to use going forward and looking ahead to this season …
"I hope so. I think it's a situation where the players really felt that we let it slip a little bit. Washington started to play better over the course of the series, but we should've won Game 3, in my opinion. I'll go to my grave with that. I mean, we were the better team in that game and then it changed. That is stuff that is behind you, but you also have to take the good with the bad and build on it. And I think we learned a lot.
"We continue, as a group, understanding that this is a draft-and-development league - and I think the players that are the veteran players really want to be here. There's been some good commitments from people in the summer, from Brandon Dubinsky and others. It's a league that, you know, the numbers count. So, we have to have everybody onboard, everybody going in the right direction. You're always going to have obstacles. That's the nature of the beast, but we'll deal with those. Curveballs … every single day we deal with those, but we're on the mend. We're a good hockey club."
On the job Kekalainen's done since being hired as the Jackets' GM and whether he's now proven himself as a keen NHL manager yet …
"Yes, he certainly has. Getting to know him in St. Louis and his work habits is probably the No.1 thing, and then it's his ability to understand talent. He's also an intelligent individual who doesn't stop learning. You can take your experience and live on that alone, if you want, but he's constantly reading books … and not just [North American] oriented. It's the whole world oriented - whether it's about sleep patterns or training or about anything having to do with sports. For me, it's helpful for the franchise, but if players pay attention, it's also good for them.
Obviously, I believed in him and I don't know how many people thought it was different - I imagine most did - that I hired a general manager from Europe. But if you delved into it, it was a lot more than just that … there's just a body of work there that keeps expanding, which is what you really want to see. You don't want to see a person that, whatever age Jarmo is, is just going to be the general manager and enjoy life. He's constantly searching and learning, and not just within the boundaries of being stable in hockey. His boundaries expand all the time."
On the addition of Bill Zito along the way …
"Jarmo came to me about hiring Bill Zito and we met for lunch in Chicago a few years ago. Bill's an extremely hard-working, really intelligent personality, knows how to deal with a lot of different things - and the three of us, I think, work together very well. And then we have [director of hockey administration] Josh Flynn in the office, who's another guy that really thinks outside the boundaries and really knows numbers and is constantly searching for ways through the world of numbers and hockey scouting, too, to make us better."
On the situation with his surgical recovery, after getting spinal fusions and multiple rods in his back to ultimately alleviate pain stemming from his playing days …
"Actually, the pain isn't bad. It hurt so much before the surgery, so the pain hasn't been bad. It's just what it does to you. It takes time, and I'm not allowed to bend for six weeks and can't carry over 10 pounds for six weeks. I had a lot of screws and just a lot of stuff done."
On establishing a winning culture and how important it is to making Columbus a spot where talented players want to play - regardless of the Panarin situation …
"That's a large part of it, and with the Panarin situation, for me, I look at it and I go, 'You know, he's earning the right at the end of this upcoming season that if he wants to become a free agent, he can do what he wants to do.' That's in the CBA. Our fans don't have to like that, but that's his prerogative - and it's not over until it's over. He's a good kid, he's a good player - in fact, he's a great player - and I personally think he's enjoyed … well, he's told us that he's enjoyed the coaching, he's enjoyed the management, teammates, trainers, the whole thing. So, we'll just see where it goes. It's not an indictment on the city of Columbus. The city of Columbus is a very good city, but a person has the right to do what he wants to do. He can do what he wants to do."
On the importance of establishing consistency within the Jackets' front office …
"I think it's about stability. If the ownership feels like the people they hire - that'd be us - are doing our jobs in getting a franchise in place to try to take the next step, then you have to stay with stability. And I am grateful for that. We have terrific ownership here. I know fans really don't know the inside of it, but I've been around this league for 45 years and I can tell you right now that ownership here is terrific. They hire people and they let people do their jobs. Here in Columbus, it's a very good situation regarding that [relationship]."