Jarmo Kekalainen stood in Nationwide Arena and listed out some of the key pillars of the future of the Blue Jackets organization.
The date was Feb. 25, 2019, right after a trade deadline that netted Columbus some of the biggest prizes on the market in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. When asked about how his shipment of draft picks and prospects to other organizations supported that "all-in" philosophy but might hurt Columbus down the road, Kekalainen didn't seem too concerned.
"No one talks about (Emil Bemstrom), but every time I talk to a general manager, that's the guy they ask about," Kekalainen said at the time. "Or they ask about Liam Foudy, who is on fire in London, or they talk about Alexandre Texier, and it's a 'no' every time. It's a nonstarter.
"We know we're not overrating those guys because that's the first question they always ask is about one of those guys."
More than two years later, Kekalainen still has Texier, Bemstrom and Foudy, but the 2021 season didn't unfold the way any of them probably expected. The three combined for 93 games and a 7-17-24 line this year, a level of offensive production that shows there's still plenty of growth to be had for three players expected to be the next wave of standouts for the Jackets.
But Kekalainen still has plenty of faith in that trio of players, in part because this season was no time for strong evaluations of players. With games stacked on top of one another, practice and meeting time at a minimum, a global pandemic clouding every move and players able to spend little time around one another, the CBJ general manager isn't going to grade Texier, Bemstrom and Foudy too harshly.
"I think you have to give them a fresh start and a new opportunity to show what they can do in a normal year," Kekalainen said. "I think that's the best way to put it, and we have some players that we have seen for a long time that we believe in. If they have a down year in these circumstances, I think you have to give them a little bit of a hall pass and move the evaluation into the future a little bit. It's been a demanding year in many different ways for all of us."
It's a message also espoused by new president of hockey operations John Davidson, who at his introductory press conference said, "I see young players here who have a great future."
It's a glass half full or half empty feeling for each now that they've seen some time in CBJ attire over the past two-plus seasons. If you're a negative nelly, you could focus on Texier's 42-game goalless streak to end the season, Bemstrom's 16-game goalless streak to start it or Foudy's 0-fer in 24 games on the season.
But there are positives for each as well. Texier had four goals in the first seven games, showed renewed confidence on the puck as the year went on and gained a ton of experience at center, with major progress made on the defensive end. Bemstrom, meanwhile, notched a hat trick May 3 against Nashville to give him some confidence going into the offseason, while Foudy had an impressive 16 points in 12 AHL games and is gaining more experience on Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships at the moment.
It's also important to remember Texier will be just 22 years old at the start of next season, Bemstrom 22 and Foudy 21, and all have strong track records of offensive success whether it be in Europe for Texier and Bemstrom or Foudy in the OHL. There's plenty of time for them to up their offensive production and gain bigger roles on the team, and all three believe that's still on tap in their careers.
While the league has gotten younger and younger, there might be the expectation among some that players burst onto the scene earlier than ever, but there is still plenty of time for the young CBJ trio to grow.
"There's no pressure, actually," said Texier, a 2017 second-round pick who also gained more and more experience as a penalty killer this season as well. "If I play the right way, it's going to come at some point. I'm just going to keep going and try to get better, but there's no pressure."
Added Foudy, the team's 2018 first-round pick: "It's hockey. There's always ups and downs. My junior years I had ups and downs and highs and lows. Same thing this year. It's how you learn to improve your game. I wouldn't be the player I am today without some of the downs I've had. It's beneficial to anyone's career as long as you learn from it. It can help you out in the future."