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Blue Jackets keeping all options open ahead of NHL draft

GM Jarmo Kekalainen says the team has a plan heading into draft day

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

To all the draftniks out there -- not to mention all the people who said the Blue Jackets mortgaged the future when they made a series of trades at the February deadline designed to give the team the chance to win the Stanley Cup -- Jarmo Kekalainen threw you a lifeline Thursday night. 

Speaking after the league's general managers met in Vancouver, one day ahead of the start of the 2019 NHL Draft tonight, the Blue Jackets GM wouldn't close the door on the Blue Jackets making a big move to slide up in the draft.  

"There's a lot of conversation and we'll see where it goes," Kekalainen said. "It's an interesting time of year. Obviously we don't have a first-round pick as of right now. Will that change before tomorrow? Who knows?  

"We always keep all the options open and try to be creative in thinking what our opportunities may be and how we can take advantage of them." 

DRAFT CENTRAL: Follow the Blue Jackets in the 2019 NHL Draft

So Blue Jackets fans who made other plans for tonight when they saw the team has only third- and seventh-round picks in the draft might want to make some popcorn and tune in instead. 

At the same time, Kekalainen knows it won't be easy to move up quite that far, and he put the percentage that the Blue Jackets do somehow acquire a first-round pick at below 50 percent. But he does expect the team to be active throughout the draft weekend, as it has been in years past. For example, in 2017, Columbus traded for Artemi Panarin the day the draft began, then moved up later to take Alexandre Texier in the second round. 

"I'm an optimistic guy so I think there are going to be some opportunities for the picks and trades and so forth, so again, we're going to keep all of our options open," he said. "If we have to go through the draft without a first-round pick, then we'll go without a first-round pick. We had one year where we didn't have a second-round pick and we got Texier at 45. 

"A lot of things can happen, and if we see a player we really like that is really high on our board, we might more aggressively try to acquire a pick that we feel is worth it. That's how we're going to approach it." 

Also of note is that the Blue Jackets are among the most well-positioned teams in the NHL when it comes to the salary cap, with the team boasting around $30 million in cap space at the moment. Some restricted free agents need to agree to terms and the team is still attempting to re-sign such key players as Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, but that flexibility could allow the team to make a trade, especially as the cap number seems to be settling in slightly lower than originally expected. 

"We'll see what the salary cap is and if that is going to create a problem for some teams and maybe opportunities for others," Kekalainen said. "We're going to look at all of our options. We're going to have plenty of cap room where it happens if our UFAs walk. That's going to create some opportunities for us. 

"It doesn't always have to be through the UFA market. It could be through a trade. We're well prepared. Our staff is thinking all the time of different scenarios, different ideas. I've talked to all those teams that might have a little bit of a cap crunch so they are well aware of our situation that we have plenty of room if the UFAs decide to go somewhere else. They know who they should call if that happens." 

And if Columbus ends up having to stay with its passel of lower-round picks, that's not the end of the world, as this scouting staff has shown an ability to find some gems in lower rounds. When asked what the team is looking for as the draft stretches on into late Saturday, Kekalainen said there's an art and science to finding players. 

"We're looking for hockey sense, we're looking for instincts, we're looking for character, heart, drive, desire -- those things mostly," he said. "Of course in today's game you have to be able to skate, you have to have skill and be able to play at a high speed and all of those things that are the easiest things to see, but what are the hardest parts? The instincts, the hockey sense and the heart and character.

"Those need to be studied for games and games and games, background checks and all kinds of different things our scouts do all year long before they put the order together." 

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