It was December 7, 2011. The Blue Jackets, having attempted to load up the previous summer by acquiring Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vinny Prospal, and Radek Martinek, were sitting at 8-16-3, and were literally last in the entire league. Things looked grim. Scott Howson's tenure as GM appeared to be nearing its end. Scott Arniel was a dead man walking behind the bench.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Jackets announced a front-office hire. Enter Craig Patrick, the Hall of Fame former GM of the Penguins brought in as a senior advisor. Patrick was also known for his role as an assistant on the 1980 US Hockey Team that stole the hearts of the nation, and really, the world en route to a gold medal.
For all of the credit being given to Howson now for the turn-around of the Blue Jackets (brought on largely by players he acquired before losing his job last year), one must really look at the roster and take note of how many of those moves happened after Patrick's hiring.
So, let's do that, shall we?
Patrick left the front office on January 10 of this year to move over to Buffalo in what can only seem to be a similar role as what he had here: an advisor to a complete turnaround and rebuild. So, first and foremost, let's look at all of the transactions (as they affected the current NHL roster) that occurred during Patrick's tenure:
1) Head Coach Scott Arniel Fired on January 10, 2012
How much effect Patrick had on this decision is unknown, but it seems to me that if one follows the logical trend, one might see that after a month's observation with no real improvement, Patrick's input probably weighed heavily on Howson pulling the trigger on Arniel. And, in what would be a theme, we'd see the promotion of Todd Richards, an American-born coach whose system relied on grit and effort.
2) Jeff Carter traded to Los Angeles for Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick.
It was clear that Carter had to go almost from the beginning, and Johnson is a bit of a lightning rod for his defensive play. That said, it was clear from the moment he arrived that Johnson brought leadership, toughness, and a willingness to lay it all on the line. He's also an American-born player. This will be a theme, folks.
3) Traded Marc Methot to Ottawa for Nick Foligno.
Methot was solid if unspectacular in Columbus, but Foligno has not only been great in the dressing room, but is having a career year this year on the scoresheet. He's also another American-born, gritty, two-way player.
4) Added Craig Hartsburg and Brad Larsen to the coaching ranks.
Hartsburg took over the defense, which almost instantly became a team strength. Larsen took over Springfield and has helped to turn the Falcons into a very, very good AHL club that preaches the same philosophy of the NHL club. The amount of call-ups from Springfield that have contributed without looking out of place speaks to this transition.
5) Traded draft picks for Sergei Bobrovsky.
Possibly the biggest move to turn around the Jackets last season, this was a move that was widely panned when it happened. Bob was coming off a less than stellar season in Philly, though there were clearly extenuating circumstance regarding his playing time. To say he's been a big hit in Columbus would be an understatement. They don't just hand out those Vezina Trophies to anyone, you know.
6) Drafted Ryan Murray in the first round of 2012.
This one was almost a no-brainer based on how the lottery played out, but with some of the other, flashier offensive options, Murray was not a sexy pick. Safe to say, however, that he might end up being the best player to come out of that draft if he can stay healthy.
Nash asked to be traded at the deadline, but to their credit Howson and company stood pat and got as much as they could in the summer. No one can really say whether or not a better offer might have existed either at the deadline or during the summer, but with the benefit of hindsight, the trade seems to have worked out decently for both teams. Nash got what he wanted in a chance to play in the playoffs, and the Jackets got a few bricks to add to their stable and help to change their culture. Dubinsky has stepped up as a big-time leader in the dressing room, and he's (wait for it) an American-born, gritty, two-way player.
8) Hired John Davidson as President of Hockey Operations
This is the big one. We'll never know who advocated for this move the most, but consider the following connections: Craig Patrick was GM and head coach of the Rangers in the early 1980s, and John Davidson played for the Rangers during that same time span. Davidson brought instant credibility to the Jackets upon his hire, and his savvy with the fanbase as well as with putting together an organization has certainly helped change the culture surrounding the club.
It is at this point that I feel like the timeline shifts, as Davidson quickly put his stamp on the team, both in the culture change as well as with removing Howson and bringing in Jarmo Kekalainen on February 13 of 2013. Patrick remained with the organization for almost a year after that, but was clearly ready to move on as his input was sought less frequently once Davidson and Kekalainen got things moving their way.
Moses was the Biblical figure who led his people out of slavery and through the wilderness. He was, for several reasons, not permitted to travel with his people into The Promised Land, however. And, to me, that's Craig Patrick for this team. Look at the list of moves made while he had Scott Howson's ear (and this list is by no means comprehensive; I left it to the major moves from which the components still have a role on today's roster).
And now, Patrick moves on to Buffalo, another team in need of a culture shift and a path out of the wilderness.
We may never know how much of a role Patrick truly had here in Columbus in terms of getting us from the abyss of 2011-2012 to a turnaround season in 2013, to now, on the precipice of a playoff berth. But, when one considers his history, and the moves made while he worked for the club and had strong influence on Scott Howson, I think he might just deserve as much credit as anyone for where the Blue Jackets currently sit in the standings.