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Defense-first Blue Jackets ahead of schedule

by Dan Rosen /

John Davidson saw a defense, so he saw a chance.

His instinct was accurate.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a top-10 defense and a goalie who should be a Vezina Trophy candidate.

They enter the weekend eighth in the Western Conference with 49 points, two more than the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars. However, both the Red Wings and Stars have two games in hand on the Blue Jackets, who have three more games remaining and can max out at 55 points.

Columbus has a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a top-10 defense and a goalie who figures to be a Vezina Trophy candidate. (Photo: Jamie Sabau - NHLI / Getty Images / Michael Martin - NHLI)

"I was asked the question when I first got there, 'How do you compare this to what you went through in St. Louis?'" Davidson, the Blue Jackets' first-year president of hockey operations, told "I said, 'I think it's a little different because this team has a better defense.' You can see the strength of this team, aside from Bob [Sergei Bobrovsky], is the defense. This team has played to its strength, and that's its goals-against.

"Keep the puck out of the net, give yourselves a chance. Everybody has bought in."

But nobody, not even Davidson, could have seen this coming two months ago.

The Blue Jackets were 5-12-2 after a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 26 gave them a 1-5-0 record on a six-game road trip. Those were the first six games they played after Jarmo Kekalainen replaced Scott Howson as general manager.

Since that point, the Blue Jackets are 16-5-5 because, as Davidson expected, their defense stepped up and Bobrovsky started turning himself into an elite goalie.

Columbus has allowed 2.11 goals per game over its past 26 games; it gave up 2.89 goals per game through its first 19 games.

"Everybody was frustrated but stayed with it," Davidson said prior to the Blue Jackets' 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. "To go as well as it has, yeah, that's unexpected, but that's sports, that's hockey. That's what makes this whole game interesting, things like this that can happen. The coaches kept pushing and coaching and pushing. They felt they were close. Then the players started to believe."

That belief has led to an attitude this organization has struggled with since its inception.

"There is a winning attitude here now," forward RJ Umberger, in his fifth season with the Blue Jackets, told "I think more than anything we've established an identity, and when teams come to play us they know what type of game it's going to be. This group has handled adversity much better than in the past."

Davidson said, "There is some inner pride to these people. They didn't like the fact that they were picked 30th."

Davidson credited the coaching staff for constantly pushing and staying positive despite the uncertainty they had to be feeling because of the changes that started with Davidson's hire over the summer and continued with Kekalainen's arrival Feb. 13.

"When the regime change happened, we decided to let them coach, let's not rattle their cage because there has been a change," Davidson said. "Let's let them coach and see where it goes, and they've done a nice job without having us pressure them."

While immeasurable for how it reflects on the team's record, it's hard to ignore Columbus' turnaround started when the players started to get to know Kekalainen.

"Sometimes change brings stimulation," Davidson said. "You all of a sudden think, 'You know what? It's not going to be the same anymore -- there is change in the air.' If people want to stay they've got to earn it, and so people have gone to work and worked hard."

Davidson still is quick to credit some of the work Howson did before his departure.

"That Bobrovsky trade has been a very good deal for us," he said of the summer deal that brought the goalile from the Philadelphia Flyers. "There are things here that Scott did that were good, there's no question, and we're going to build off that too. But sometimes change is necessary."

The Blue Jackets have noticed a change in their fan base.

They announced an attendance of 11,523 on March 1, their first home game after the 1-5-0 road trip. The announced attendance for each of the past two home games has been 17,000-plus.

"The people wanted blue-collar," Davidson said. "Even if there was going to be a process of learning how to win as an organization, they wanted effort. We promised that. We didn't promise the wins, but I promised effort, because you can control that.

"We know we have blue-collar workers and we know it's a group that has earned the respect of our fans. That gives us a real good springboard going forward."

Sergei Bobrovsky
Goalie - CBJ
RECORD: 18-11-6
GAA: 2.03 | SVP: 0.931
So did the trade Kekalainen made April 3 with the New York Rangers for Marian Gaborik, which serves as proof of the culture change.

"It was a clear message from the top of the organization that they want to win and they want to win now," Umberger said. "It was a bold move. I think it says a lot for the direction of this team."

The Blue Jackets are 6-3-0 since the trade and Gaborik has seven points.

"He's fit in really exceptionally with our guys," Umberger said. "He's stepped right in and it seems like he's been here all year."

Gaborik has one more season left on his contract, but Kekalainen wants to sign him to an extension before next season.

"We're just trying to win hockey games now," Davidson said when asked about a possible extension.

If they win enough, they may get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That's not a reach anymore. It's become the expectation.

"Anything less is unacceptable, a failure for us," Umberger said. "I think people could say, 'Yeah, what a good turnaround and you can hang your hat on that, at least you were in it.' We want to be in the playoffs, and that's the only thing that matters."


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