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Blue Jackets building on late-season success

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- John Davidson lives and dies with the mantra that the Columbus Blue Jackets be built brick by brick.

He's said it so many times to media in the nearly 11 months he has been the president of hockey operations it would be easy to think he was the reason the Blue Jackets' home, Nationwide Arena, is resplendent in brick.

Not true, obviously, but he was asked if, figuratively, there are more bricks to build a foundation than he could have imagined when he took the job, considering the Blue Jackets made a stirring, albeit unsuccessful, run for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the 48-game schedule last season.

"That's an interesting question," Davidson said at Tuesday's Media Day. "I think so."

Columbus went 19-5-5 over the final 29 games following a 5-12-2 start. Even though the 24-17-7 mark was the best percentage (.573) in team history, and the Blue Jackets tied for eighth place in the Western Conference, they lost the tiebreaker to the Minnesota Wild for the final spot in the 2013 playoffs.

The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once (2009) since entering the NHL for the 2000-01 season.

"What the players did was help energize a franchise that was middle to below-middle and how people look at it in this community," coach Todd Richards said. "Not that it was bad, there just wasn't an overly excitement about it.

"I spent the whole summer here and I have two kids in the community, so I've developed a lot of friendships in this community, and whether it was talking to them or being out with them and people coming up to talk to me, I could not believe the difference in the outlook of the general public toward this organization, toward this team."

Expectations are up for the Blue Jackets, but Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said the organization's steady-as-it-goes strategy will not change. That means the future will not be mortgaged for short-term gains.

"You have to stick to your plan, the values you believe in, in building a team, the way you evaluate talent, the way you see roles evolve," Kekalainen said. "It was a relative success. We played well, had an exciting run, but we didn't make the playoffs. We weren't good enough.

"We need to get better. Everybody realizes that and at the same time build on the performances we had down the stretch and know we can play that way and compete against the best teams and beat them."

The Blue Jackets under Davidson and Kekalainen, who worked together for a time with the St. Louis Blues, have shown a willingness to be bold when necessary.

An NHL Trade Deadline deal for forward Marian Gaborik was an example, as was the free agent signing of Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton this summer. But the focus is on building from within, and the Blue Jackets held on to three first-round picks in the 2013 NHL Draft to select center Alexander Wennberg (No. 14), forward Kerby Rychel (No. 19) and center Marko Dano (No. 27).

"We feel good about the young players we have in general," Davidson said. "We have a number of young goalies. (Forward) Boone Jenner is a player with leadership skills and talent. He'll be knocking on the door for sure. These are good problems to have.

"You always look at depth to try and make yourself better. You can do a lot of different things in the world of hockey if you have depth, whether it's packaging people to fix areas that need to be fixed or other things. Dealing from strength is a good thing."

Sergei Bobrovsky emerged in 2012-13 to have a brilliant third NHL season, posting a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage en route to winning the Vezina Trophy. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Blue Jackets were helped immeasurably down the stretch last season by 24-year-old Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (21-11-6, 2.00 GAA, four shutouts).

"The emergence of Bobrovsky was really, really good for our organization," Davidson said. "Goaltending can settle down an organization right now."

Bobrovsky's play should be one less thing the Blue Jackets have to worry about this season and could allow some of the younger players more time to develop in the minors or juniors if the team has success.

"Drafting is a big part of it, but player development is a big part of it too," Kekalainen said. "Not only the draft picks and the players in the AHL, but the ones at the NHL level need to keep improving.

"Once we draft well and have good talent in place and keep nurturing and improving from there on in, a young team will get better year by year and get us closer to our goals."

Davidson is ready to get the season started but knows a red-hot club over two months doesn't mean the makeover is anywhere near complete.

"It's a club that even though it was a shortened season we had a lot of growth, which was really good for us," he said. "A lot of questions were answered. A lot of areas were stabilized.

"With that being said, I feel that we have a long way to go, but at least we've given ourselves a pretty deep base with the amount of talent that down the road should be Blue Jackets in the future. I'm excited about the organization."

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