Earlier this morning, John Davidson and the Columbus Blue Jackets announced the hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen as the third General Manager in team history. The news conference was broadcast through the Blue Jackets website, and the message seemed relatively clear and thought through.
Davidson was very complimentary of former GM Scott Howson, talking about Howson’s efforts to bring JD up to speed, his professionalism in the news being shared with him yesterday, and the desire to continue to utilize his hockey knowledge and resources in a different role with the franchise.
Moving to Kekalainen, Davidson provided ample praise. He will become the first European to become General Manager of an National Hockey League team which is both exciting and intriguing at the same time. He is a graduate of Clarkson and has seen a substantial amount of time in the NHL:
Ottawa Senators front office (1995-2002)
St. Louis Blues Director of Amateur Scouting (2002-2010)
Most recently, he managed Jokerit in Finland, where he produced a winner on the ice, and saw a great rise in attendance. Fortunately, there was a clause in his contract that allowed him to walk away should a position open with an NHL club, and in this case, it seems to be an excellent fit with JD in Columbus.
Jarmo comes into the organization at a remarkably pivotal time in franchise history. With three first rounders in the upcoming draft (and likely more as the season wears on and the dead weight is dropped), Kekalainen will need to provide the team with top tier selections in order to build for future success. He will also need to make sure the contracts pending to UFA’s (Prospal, Letestu, Aucoin, McElhinney) and RFA’s (Anisimov, Calvert, Atkinson, Gillies, Goloubef, Mason and Bobrovsky) are handled reasonably and allow for growth of other areas on the team. Jarmo seems up to the task.
I believe that most General Managers have a certain style and usually a certain type of team in mind, and I hope Kekalainen brings forth something similar to what Davidson talked about after arriving here: hard nosed hockey, where every inch of the ice is earned, and players who want to focus more on the team than on the stat sheet. Feedback from a conference call held with media today seemed to confirm my hopes. Kekalainen was credited with saying ”(I’m) Preaching same story as JD: We’re going to build brick by brick, one step at a time. Couldn’t be more excited.”
His drafting history is exceptional. Jarmo shared a bit of his philosophy on the conference call: ”(Skill and skating) are the cover of the book. I always emphasize to get deeper, a deeper understanding of what the player is like, evaluate his character and heart, his instinct for the game….(NHL speed) comes from ‘the thinking.” As a scout, Kekalainen gave OTT Spezza, Berard, Hossa, Phillips, Havlat, Emery, Neil, Salo, Fisher, & Kelly (HT Harrison Mooney). While in St. Louis, he brought in what is arguably the backbone of the team: the likes of Backes, Berglund, Pietrangelo, Oshie, etc. The Blues will likely see the rise of that franchise because of these acquisitions. The only exception is Erik Johnson, however, the trade made that included him allowed St. Louis to bolster other important areas of the depth chart.
It was great to also hear Davidson talk about the entirety of the scouting staff being secure in their current process, because I do believe it is extremely important to have that full year of scouting before the draft. Many credit Jarmo’s nationality as an asset in the ever increasingly global world of hockey. While I believe Jarmo’s extensive knowledge of the European hockey market is a huge addition to the Blue Jackets’ team, he is also quick to point out that (on being first European GM) “I’m proud, but the work starts now. It’s up to my ability, not my nationality, to get the job done.” I love the sentiment and am encouraged with Jarmo’s focus – but I’m looking forward to see the increased credibility with both young players and European free agents as well.
With that JD mentality in mind, it will be interesting to see if the coaching style of Todd Richards suits Davidson and Kekalainen, or whether a decision to go in a different direction looms over the course of the next year or two. Similary, when looking to our current roster, I think this move really resonates through the dressing room. Davidson notably said that these moves put the franchise in a position of change, in both personnel and culture. Aaron Portzline of the Dispatch noted in his lunchtime chat today that this change certainly gives “players who were ‘safe’ under GMSH reason to question their place in the pecking order and dressing room.” This attitude that Jarmo is reinforcing that a certain expectation is demanded or change will occur has to serve as excellent motivation for players who may believe that they are owed things being on the Columbus roster.
Continuing the JD philosophy that we’ll look more and more to free agents as we grow our youthful prospects the right way, what many seem to insinuate is that Columbus needs to find a way to convince players to sign here. The theory goes that they have to grossly overpay to convince free agents to play here, despite a quality way of life and great facilities in Columbus. While I can see where they are coming from, this bold outcry for a change in culture should be a great starting point, and having a guy like Davidson at the helm should reduce much of the hesitation with free agents considering where they can expect to find a great team.
With all that said, Davidson made it quite clear that the best teams generated their core from the draft, and I support the concept of starting there. I do not want to see trades that grossly overpay for top tier talent, or free agent contracts that cripple the ability to balance the depth chart. If this team is going to win, and they are going to be patient about it, I truly hope they go about it the right way.
Kekalainen has the ability to define himself early in Columbus and I cannot wait to see what kind of GM he is. Here’s hoping his stellar track record brings an awesome core of players to the Blue Jackets depth chart this summer. I’m counting on it.
Carry the Flag!