The offseason of change for the Blue Jackets is off and running.
A day after The Columbus Dispatch learned that John Davidson would be re-hired as the team's president of hockey operations, the Blue Jackets formally announced that move plus a two-year contract extension for Jarmo Kekalainen — the team's general manager and an alternate governor.
Davidson returns to Columbus with a five-year contract and Kekalainen is now signed through the 2024-25 season.
“John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen worked tirelessly and effectively together to transform our hockey club from a team with one Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in 12 seasons to one that reached the postseason five times in seven years from 2013-20,” Blue Jackets president and alternate governor Mike Priest said in a release issued Thursday. “This is an important time for our organization and having stability and proven leadership at the top of our hockey operations department is critical for us to do what we want to do, which is bring a Stanley Cup championship to Columbus."
Davidson and Kekalainen will meet with reporters at 2 p.m. Thursday via video conference.
Davidson, 68, left Columbus on May 17, 2019, to take the same position with the New York Rangers, whom he played eight of his 10 NHL seasons for as a goalie and worked two decades for as a Hall of Fame television analyst.
The Rangers made a stunning decision May 7 to part ways with both Davidson and former general manager Jeff Gorton. New York failed to make the playoffs in either of Davidson's two seasons, but the Rangers were in the hunt this year with a talented roster that was likely too green for contention.
Davidson had three years left on his contract with the Rangers. Kekalainen has two years left on his current deal.
Jarmo Kekalainen, general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, left, answers a question as John Davidson, president of hockey operations, right, smiles during an end-of-season press conference on Monday, April 24, 2017 at Nationwide Arena. (Photo: Joshua A. Bickel, Columbus Dispatch)
"Signing Jarmo to an extension and then bringing J.D. back gives us the right people to address the opportunities and challenges before us and we couldn’t be more excited," Priest said.
Davidson's first stint with the Blue Jackets began Oct. 24, 2012, when he left his first executive stop as president of the St. Louis Blues to help a wayward organization find sustained success. He spearheaded the most successful run in the franchise's 20-year history, which included the hiring of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, veteran head coach John Tortorella and four straight years of playoff contention — which ended this season but included a historic sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019.
Davidson left Columbus in the offseason that followed that magical first-round triumph and the Blue Jackets also lost a raft of free agents that summer, headlined by star forward Artemi Panarin, who signed with Davidson and the Rangers.
Regardless of his absence, Davidson's fingerprints were still visible after his departure — including Kekalainen's stewardship from the front office and Tortorella from the bench.
Things fell apart quickly this year, starting with former No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois forcing a requested trade with uncharacteristically lethargic play in the first couple weeks. Kekalainen swapped him and a draft pick for star forward Patrik Laine and forward Jack Roslovic from the Winnipeg Jets, but signs were already showing this season was headed down the wrong path.
The Jackets never shook their inconsistency, were sellers at the April 12 trade deadline and spiraled all the way to the bottom of a realigned Central Division. Tortorella and the team "mutually" parted ways afterward, agreeing not to pursue a contract extension, and that was the opening salvo in what promises to be a loud offseason in Columbus.
The situation isn't as dire as 2012, when Davidson was hired the first time, but it's not great either.
A new coaching staff is needed. A big decision must be made about Laine, a pending restricted free agent coming off the worst season of his career. Another big decision awaits between goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, who both will be unrestricted free agents after next season, and the Jackets need to forge a plan for their three first-round picks in the draft this summer — the highest of which could potentially be No. 1 overall.
And that's not even mentioning the contract situations of two defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Once free agency opens July 28, Jones will become a pending UFA and Werenski a pending RFA, which means both could either start negotiations on long-term extensions or give Kekalainen an indication they're not ready to commit to long-term.
John Davidson, president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets, right, answers a question during an end-of-season press conference along with Jarmo Kekalainen, general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, left, on Monday, April 24, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch] (Photo: Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)
Davidson will now preside over all of those situations and give Kekalainen another voice in the Jackets' front office. It was made possible by Rangers owner James Dolan, whose shocking decision to part ways with Davidson and Gorton was made a day after his team roiled the NHL with a scathing statement about the NHL’s Department of Player Safety — which opted not to suspend Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson for a post-whistle incident that injured Panarin.
The Rangers’ statement called for George Parros, the head of the league’s department of player safety, to be fired. That angered NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to the point the league issued its own statement plus a $250,000 fine, but Dolan said there was no connection between the Wilson-Parros situation and his decision to fire his former executives.
Either way, Davidson is a Blue Jacket again and Kekalainen has more job security to continue their quest to win the Cup.
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