Photo by Chris Casella

A Quiet Summer Before the Storm

Two words have overshadowed all else this offseason for the Columbus Blue Jackets – Ryan. Johansen.

Last year, the 22-year-old breakout center played all 88 games and amassed 35 goals and 34 assists to lead the team offensively. The restricted free agent spent the summer in contract negotiations, but the two sides are worlds apart. John Davidson, the club’s president of hockey operations, was pragmatic and businesslike when discussing the rift during our interview, but in the weeks since, the situation has grown ugly. Davidson told The Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline that Johansen’s agent’s tactics amounted to “extortion.”

“If we ever caved to what he’s demanding, we’d all get fired,” Davidson said. “And I take it personal.”

Davidson was upbeat about the team in general, though, reporting that the Jackets were ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process and had improved in every facet, from coaching to scouting to offseason training to nutrition. He was especially optimistic about the club’s youth and the assets in place for possible deals. He summarized the organization’s outlook: “Let’s do things right and when we’re gonna win, we’re gonna win for a long time.”

As the season looms, it’s all that remains – win early, win often.

How has the challenge of building a team here been different than the one you faced in St. Louis? I have more experience, which is important. Two, [former GM] Scott Howson – the previous group – did a good job trading for [Sergei] Bobrovsky. So we didn’t know what that was going to be, but it’s turned out to be a good thing. And when you have goaltending that can give you a chance to win, it’s good, and two years ago he gave us that chance. But it really gave us a chance to kickstart the organization. We didn’t have that in St. Louis. I think here, if the Johansen thing works out, it gives ya a good centerman, which makes a difference.

You mentioned the Ryan Johansen contract storyline. Do you have any sense of whether a deal will get done before the season? No. No sense at all. I think that the storyline is that it’s probably the only storyline we have in a quiet summer. And we have not been able to come to an agreement. Generally, when you look at his agent and the way he does his business, it’s usually a last second deal, so if there’s a last second deal, great. If not, he won’t be here for camp, and we’ll have a lot of players that are good young players, like [Alexander] Wennberg, who played in [the SHL] last year in Sweden. [Kerby] Rychel. We’ll look at [2014 first-round pick Sonny] Milano … we have Boone Jenner, who can play center. We’ve got [Brandon] Dubinsky, who can play center and move up in the lineup. 

We’ve never heard anybody say that this organization doesn’t do things right with contracts. We’ll do the right thing – if they don’t think it’s good enough, then it’s not good enough.

Do you feel added pressure this year to win… No.

You do not? No, and the reason I don’t is ‘cause I know we can win, and I think the pressure is finding out if you’re good enough to get into the hunt. Are you good enough to get into the battle? You get into the battle, anything can happen, and so I feel strongly about our team being one that’s gonna be in the battle, one that’s gonna be in the playoffs.

There were money problems related to the Nationwide Arena lease before it was sold a couple years ago. Has that situation put any extra pressure on the hockey team to perform in a hurry? No. To be bluntly honest, I don’t know a lot about that. There’s no outside pressure on us at all. This team has an incredible group of owners, led by the McConnell family. Nationwide, The Dispatch – all these people, they obviously wanted us to try to win as soon as possible, but when I got here I told them this could be a painful rise back – anybody can go and trade their first-rounders and get a couple players and be in a race. But it’s not gonna last. 

The organization’s very excited about hosting the 2015 All-Star Game. Why is that an important event for the team and for the city? It’s televised in 200 countries, on the radio all over the world. The idea of having the best come to our city is a special thing. Hopefully, we’ll have a couple of guys play in it. The fans will get a chance to celebrate our sport.

People say, “Where ya from?” and a lot of people go, “Ohio.” People shouldn’t say they’re from Ohio; they should say they’re from Columbus, because we’re Columbus. And so this is another opportunity, like the President’s Cup was, for us to show off the city. This is a good city. This is a very good city, and there’s not a lot of people who know a lot about it, but the people who do come here – an example would be when they had the [NHL] draft here a few years ago – people love their time here.

Do you think the NHL has fully recovered from the backlash due to the most recent lockout? It’s astonishing. Lockouts aren’t a good thing for anybody – for the player, for the owner, for the fan, for the people in the business – but I think the last one made the game better business-wise. It had to go through a painful process. The parity in this game is unreal, the amount of teams that are in the race right up till the end to get into the playoffs. People that get into the playoffs have a chance to win. So the game I don’t think has ever been better.

If you could pinpoint one thing that’s going to be the key for this season, what would that be? Better start to the season. Gives you a chance instead of having a slow start, and then you have no chance to have a bad week. [laughs] That’s how tight this thing is. So a good start to the season would be very important, and that’s a team thing. It’s not just saying we need good goaltending, or we need Johansen, or we need this or that. I honestly think that if you look at our team, if we get nailed with an unforeseen circumstance, an injury or something, that we can find our way around it ‘cause we have the depth to do it. We may have some really good surprises with all these young people coming here, but we need the good start. That’s a key for us. We have to deal with it ‘cause we’ve had bad starts two years in a row. We have to deal with it, and that’s up to the coaches and the players to figure it out.

The Columbus Blue Jackets open the regular season at the Buffalo Sabres on October 9 and host the home opener against the New York Rangers on October 11.

Video courtesy of The Columbus Blue Jackets.