Is John Davidson overrated?

When New York Rangers owner James Dolan fired John Davidson and Jeff Gorton, it was met with unanimous shock among hockey observers.  While Jeff Gorton had his detractors, John Davidson is one of the most beloved men in the hockey world and his termination was met with universal condemnation.

Rangers owner James Dolan was castigated for making an impulsive decision based on some bad losses to the Islanders and Capitals.  The sentiment was that Dolan was overreacting to the Tom Wilson incident and a series of games when the Rangers were intimidated and bullied and didn’t react.    The critics said that Dolan was meddling with a successful rebuild and this was a harbinger of things to come.  Fans were afraid that he would take the Rangers down the same road as the New York Knicks.  His worst move was firing the beloved John Davidson who stood up for his GM and coaching staff.  This may be controversial, but does Davidson deserve all of the praise?

Lets make this clear, as a New York Rangers player and broadcaster, JD deserves all of the accolades. His play in goal in that magical trip to the 1979 Stanley Cup Final will embed him in the fond memories of all Ranger fans. If he hadn’t hurt his knee in the Final, who knows if the Rangers would have been able to end their Stanley Cup drought after “only” 39 years?   He was a great Rangers goalie, not in the same neighborhood as Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Richter or Eddie Giacomin, but well regarded nonetheless.

When he made his move into the broadcast booth he cemented his reputation among Ranger fans and he was there in 1994 when the Rangers finally ended the drought.  His trademark comments from “Oh baby” to the “Chateau bow wow,” are expressions recalled fondly by all Ranger fans old enough to remember.

So, there’s no doubt about it, as a Rangers player and broadcaster for 30 years, JD is beloved in New York and deserves it.  But what about his work in the front office?

St Louis Blues

On June 30, 2006, John Davidson was named President of the St. Louis Blues, hired by Dave Checketts who knew him from his days running Madison Square Garden.  Although the Blues had made the playoffs for 25 straight years, after the lockout they finished dead last in the NHL with only 57 points.

In the six years Davidson was team president, the Blues made the playoffs twice and in his last year, finished first in the Central Division.  He eventually fired General Manager Larry Pleau, replacing him with Doug Armstrong.  He went through four coaches as well with his last pick, Ken Hitchcock, winning the Jack Adams Trophy as top coach in the league.

Davidson is credited with re-making the team and was the face of the Blues for much of his time there, though he ceded his high profile to Armstrong later in his tenure.   He traded away high profile Blues players like Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Erik Johnson.

Many point to his success at the draft with picks like Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jordan Binnington, Lars Eller, Ian Cole, David Perron and Jaden Schwartz.   However, the Blues had as many misses as hits including some very bad first and second round picks.   In 2007 Davidson had amassed three first round picks and chose Eller (#13), Cole (#18)  and Perron (#26).   The Blues could have had Kevin Shattenkirk, Max Pacioretty,  P.K. Subban, Alec Martinez and Alec Killorn.

In 2012, when a new Blues ownership group was looking to cut costs, Davidson took a buyout.   After he left, the Blues teams he built made the playoffs five of six years, winning three of eight playoff series.  Of course, they went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2019 one year after missing the playoffs.

While Davidson gets credit for getting the Blues back into playoff contention, it was Doug Armstrong who was the architect of that championship team, making key trades for players like Ryan O’Reilly and Braden Schenn and installing Craig Berube as coach 20 games into the 2018-19 season.

Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s interesting that Davidson gets a lot of credit for his work in Columbus and not his work in St. Louis.  Perhaps it’s because Doug Armstrong was such a strong GM that he became the face of the team instead of JD.   But how did Davidson do in Columbus?

Two weeks after he took the buyout from the Blues, he was named President of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  He took over a team that had made the playoffs once in its 11 year history and had lost in the first round that one year. They had never finished higher than third place and they did that only once (under coach Gerard Gallant).  When JD came in they had finished last in the Central Division for three straight seasons.

In his seven years as president of the Blue Jackets, his teams made the playoffs four times and they won one playoff series.   He left after his most successful season, when the Blue Jackets swept the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning and then took the Bruins to six games in the second round.

There’s no denying that the Blue Jackets were a good team while Davidson was in charge.  They posted a .570 winning percentage in those seven years and had the ninth most wins in the NHL in that time.  They were still unable to finish higher than third place and a lot of the credit for the Blue Jackets’ success has to go to coach John Tortorella.

With Davidson in charge, the Blue Jackets made some huge deals. They traded Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin, Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones and in 2013, they helped the Rangers get to the Stanley Cup Final by swapping Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore to New York for Marian Gaborik.

In 2019, Columbus went all-in at the trade deadline, sending two first round and one second round pick along with three players to Ottawa for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel and keeping pending free agents Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.  Losing in the second round after rolling the dice has to be seen as a bad gamble.

It’s small wonder that Davidson jumped at the opportunity with the Rangers knowing that the Blue Jackets were going to end up losing all four of those players along with those draft picks.

New York Rangers

John Davidson has to get an Incomplete grade for his brief, two-year stay in New York.   His first season has to be seen as a learning experience and he really impacted only one draft, in 2020.   He was supportive of the work done by Jeff Gorton and David Quinn and he clearly let them continue on the rebuild route that they had taken.

Was he instrumental in getting Artemi Panarin to sign with the Rangers?  Probably not since the Russian took less money to play in New York, where he always wanted to play.  He had to sign off on the big contracts doled out to Jacob Trouba and Chris Kreider and the jury is out on both of those deals.

He did have an impact on two prized prospects in Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov when both of them were mismanaged at the start of the Ranger careers.   Davidson re-established contact with both players and got them back into the fold, something that Gorton was unable to do.  At the same time, Davidson allowed the Tony DeAngelo fiasco to happen, a situation that would have been avoidable if there had been no ultimatums.

Davidson’s biggest failing as President was that he was not more forceful in light of the absolute disaster last summer, the three-game sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifier.  There was no denying that the Rangers were exposed in that series as a soft team that had gaping holes in their roster.  His answer was to draft Braden Schneider, a player who may make an impact next year if we’re lucky.

We will never know what was going on behind the scenes in the Rangers front office, but as team president, Davidson had the authority to make changes once those holes were exposed.  When the Tom Wilson “episode” happened, it was clear that the Rangers had not made the changes they needed to make.

Davidson made a miscalculation, throwing his support behind an incumbent leadership team and a rebuild strategy that was moving too slowly.  It cost him his job.

So, is he overrated?

So, is John Davidson deserving of all of the sympathy he got from the hockey cognoscenti after got canned?  Or is the fact that he is well liked and a nice guy made him immune to criticism?  Is he overrated in his ability to build and run a hockey team?

Based on results, the answer is yes.  He has been the president of three hockey teams for 15 years. In those 15 years, his teams have made the playoffs six times and they won only two playoff series.   Yes, that’s two playoff series won in 15 years.

After he left, the Blues got considerably better and eventually won a Stanley Cup, albeit seven years later. The Blue Jackets have gotten worse since his departure.

One of Davidson’s great attributes is his ability to let his general managers run their teams. In St. Louis it was Doug Armstrong’s success that took the team to a championship.  In Columbus, he has let Jarmo Kekäläinen make the decisions with mixed results.  In New York, it was a similar relationship with Jeff Gorton and we know how that ended up.

One thing that is obvious is that he can nurture talent.   Armstrong and Kekäläinen are thought of as two of the best in the business. Davidson brought Bill Zito on board the management team in Columbus and this season, Zito was a finalist for GM of the Year for his work as GM of the Florida Panthers.

That’s one big reason why he is so highly regarded in the hockey world.   If the criteria for running a hockey team is popularity, Davidson wins, hands down.  But based on results on the ice, Davidson is overrated.  The final determining factor is how successful his managers are and that’s where he succeeded in St. Louis and failed in Columbus and New York.

Ranger fans have to hope that in his two years with the Rangers, he helped prepare Chris Drury for the job of running the team.  The irony is that Davidson might have done too good a job grooming his own successor.