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Deadline deals reveal Jackets' ultimate goal: sustained success

Columbus stocked up with quality veterans, but didn't sacrifice its future

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider /

Seated in his office this past weekend, Jarmo Kekalainen laid out the high-wire act the Blue Jackets' front office was about to traverse at the NHL Trade Deadline.

"We all want to make the playoffs," he said, adding emphasis to his words during an interview with "We really want to make the playoffs, and it's our goal. It's been our goal and will be our goal until the end …"

You could sense a "but," coming next, and the Blue Jackets' general manager delivered.

"… but not at any cost, if it comes at a cost where we all of a sudden have to steer away from what our long-term goal is," he said. "That's not worth the price."

It was a comment about winning, even if it wasn't the standard context of winning that's usually discussed.

Video: Shelley and McElligott break down today's moves

What the Blue Jackets are attempting to do, as an organization, isn't about the raging battle between short-term and long-term success. It's about marrying those ideals into one universal goal for a franchise that has high aspirations.

It is important to Kekalainen and the rest of the Blue Jackets' front office to make the playoffs this season, but it can't become their sole focus.

Short-term goals, when they take over a franchise, tend to stick a knife in the back of long-term hopes. Likewise, if you're forever peering down the road at tomorrow, well, good luck winning today. 

What Kekalainen and the Jackets' hockey operations department did before the deadline passed was somewhere in between. They added three veterans in trades, after claiming Taylor Chorney off waivers, and they didn't smash open the prospects/draft picks bank to do it.

Video: WSH@CBJ: Letestu scores in 1st game back with Jackets

What's the biggest difference between this season and last for Columbus at the deadline?

That's an easy one. Last season, the Jackets already had their dance card punched for the Stanley Cup Playoffs by this point. This season, it's going to be a slugfest just to get in the door.

"Now, you have to think about getting there," Kekalainen told "But not at any cost, because we want to be good next year, the year after and the year after that, and so forth. To be good in those future years, you need to have your depth chart stocked with prospects and draft picks. And to give away all those to just make sure or try to do whatever it takes this year to make the playoffs, and mortgage our future for doing it, is too much of a price."

That's the biggest reason you didn't see any of the most coveted, big-ticket guys wind up in Columbus. The price in virtually all of those splashier deals included a first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, along with a top prospect in some cases.

The Blue Jackets hung onto their top picks with vice grips and retained their top prospects, as well. After trading their first-round pick last year in a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights that was related to the expansion draft, trading another first-round pick a year later just wasn't going to happen.

"We don't want to put that hole two years in a row into our depth chart," Kekalainen said Monday, an hour after the deadline passed. "I can already feel the effects of the one-year hole. I definitely do not want to feel the effects of a two-year hole there in the depth chart. That was sort of a non-starter with us, and we were out of those battles right from the start."

Other factors that played into those battles, as well, such as teams simply liking other team's trade pieces better. There's not much the Blue Jackets could do about that, but they did have control over how much they were willing to give up.

Video: Vanek discusses joining team and how he'll contribute

As it turned out, the price they paid for acquiring three veterans in the course of two days was minimal in comparison to other team's trade hauls.

They spent a fourth-round pick in this year's draft to get two-way veteran center Mark Letestu from the Edmonton Oilers. They dealt forward prospect Nick Moutrey and a third-round pick in 2020 to the Ottawa Senators for Ian Cole, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and solid, stout defenseman.

They sent Tyler Motte and Jussi Jokinen, who'd each played on the fourth line in Columbus, to the Vancouver Canucks for Thomas Vanek, a veteran winger with 350 career goals to his credit.

That's not even counting Chorney, an experienced defenseman claimed off waivers from the Washington Capitals, or speedy veteran forward Nathan Gerbe, who was signed mid-season out of the Swiss league. Gerbe was re-assigned to the Cleveland Monsters prior to the Blue Jackets' 5-1 victory Monday against the Capitals, but it's not a stretch to think he might find his way back at some point.

All told, that's five veterans - five pending unrestricted free agents - added to a team that had the youngest roster in the league to start the season. The cost didn't jeopardize the future, and now those Blue Jackets youngsters have even more battle-tested types to learn from.

"I don't mean it as a criticism to the young guys at all, but being the youngest team in the league isn't always a good thing," said defenseman Jack Johnson, himself an NHL veteran. "Having some of those guys that have been there and done that, and all that, it's nice to have that. It's a confidence builder."

The Blue Jackets have struggled with big momentum swings at times this season, and that might be related to their overall youth. Many veterans players aren't affected by negative momentum within a game, because they've learned how to minimize it. They don't panic a bit, because they've been through it time and time again.

There's another trait the Blue Jackets' new guys share, too, almost to a man. They were respected in their previous team's locker rooms, if not beloved. That's not an insignificant detail, especially for a team with 19 games left to secure a playoff spot.

"They're good in the room," Johnson said. "Young guys can learn from them. Older guys learn from each other. I don't think you ever stop learning. I think the team has only gotten better, and I think management has sent a clear message that they still believe in this group a tremendous amount. And the only thing left to do now is go win the Stanley Cup."

This year, next year, the year after and the year after that … and so forth.

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