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EXIT DAY, PART II: Management, coaches want Jackets to think 'bigger'

Columbus GM Kekalainen: 'That's the goal. You want to win the Cup.'

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

It was good, overall, but the 2017-18 season wasn't good enough for the Blue Jackets.

Listening to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and coach John Tortorella during their season-ending press conferences Thursday, that was the main takeaway.

Each feels the Jackets have moved beyond the stage of merely hoping to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, after qualifying the past two seasons and losing each time in the first-round - last season to the champion Pittsburgh Penguins and this season against the Washington Capitals after holding a 2-0 series lead.

"I think we need to get by this 'young team, yeah you went through some really good experiences [idea].' No, we need to start thinking that we are a playoff team and that when we get the opportunity, we need to be better. That starts with the head coach, as far as preparing, and right on through the team, right through our goaltender [Sergei Bobrovsky], as far as just being better if we're going to find a way to win a series."

EXIT DAY, PART I: JACKETS' DISAPPOINTMENT MIXED WITH RENEWED MOTIVATION

There was a pause before he was asked another question, which Tortorella used to add a finishing thought.

"I'm talking about winning a series," he said. "This is supposed to be the Stanley Cup. We have to start thinking more aggressively and bigger, add more to our standard."

Three days after the series against the Capitals concluded with a 6-3 loss in Game 6 at Nationwide Arena on Monday, the sting losing four straight games - three of the four at home - still tinged Tortorella's words.

"I think everything stings when you win the first two games and have an opportunity to put yourself in a good spot early in the series and lose four straight," Tortorella said. "Three at home, great building to play in, the fans were terrific … and to zero in, we have two great opportunities in Game 3 [at home] to grab a stranglehold of it, but we don't get it done, and in Game 5, we played a third period [where we] have 10 scoring chances, don't score a goal."

Tortorella talked a lot about finishing, the Jackets' lack of doing that at key times and the need to figure out how to close out playoff games and series.

"There are a number of different things that I think went on in the series that hurt us, but we had our opportunities," he said. "We just did not finish. We didn't score, make the big offensive play, score the goal, did not get a big save at certain times. Everybody has to give skin here, from the coaches right on through, as far as what happened."

Tortorella wasn't the only one raising the bar. Players already had Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Game 6 loss, and Kekalainen did too.

The Blue Jackets will be well-represented during the 2018 IIHF Men's World Championship next week in Denmark, and Kekalainen had a message for his NHL players heading over.

"I told each and every one of them we expected to play in May every year from now on, and hopefully in June," he said. "It's good for them to get into the habit of playing some games in May."

Teams in the NHL still playing in May win at least one round in the playoffs. Teams still chasing the puck around in May are also still chasing the Stanley Cup.

"I think we're in a good place right now," Kekalainen said. "Can we get better? Absolutely. And we will. We'll look at every opportunity to do that, there's no question about it. Just like 'Torts' said, the standard has to be to make the playoffs every year. We're going to be better. We're going to win a series, and then two and then three, hopefully, and get to the Stanley Cup final. That's the goal. You want to win the Cup."

WATCH: FULL EXIT DAY INTERVIEWS

NEWS & NOTES

-- Artemi Panarin said a skate came up and hit his knee early in Game 5, and the injury caused pain for the remainder of the series. Thursday, the Athletic's Aaron Portzline reported that Panarin's agent, Dan Milstein, confirmed it was a knee sprain that would keep the Russian star in Columbus longer than he'd planned, working to rehab it.

That means Panarin won't play for Russia the world championships, like he did last year, helping his country win a bronze medal.

"He had an injury in that game, and he played banged up in the playoffs but that's it," Kekalainen said.

-- Panarin was also the subject of another question pertaining to contract situations for himself and Bobrovsky, who each have one year left on their current deals. Kekalainen said no preliminary talks about contract extensions haven't been held for either.

"We haven't really entered any discussions with their agents, so we'll have to hear what they have to say first," Kekalainen said. "Hopefully there's a will for those guys to stay here when they could become unrestricted free agents [in 2019]. I hope they want to stay and they're happy in Columbus, [and] they want to stay with a good team. Both of those guys were huge parts of our team."

-- Panarin and Bobrovsky aren't the only looming contract issues. Kekalainen was also asked about situations involving Tortorella and veteran defenseman Ian Cole.

Tortorella's deal has one year left, while Cole - acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26 - can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"Last summer we were in the same situation [with Tortorella's contract]," Kekalainen said. "We had a great year, he had one more year left and we arrived at a contract extension later in the summer. We're going to have to make that decision again. He's done a good job for us and he's a good coach."

Cole is a little more uncertain. It sounds like the Blue Jackets would like to keep him, but their salary-cap situation will determine how much they can offer.

"If he wants to go to July 1 and see what's out there, to weigh all his options and make a decision, that's his right and there's not much we can do about it except tell him we appreciate the job he did here," Kekalainen said. "I was very pleased with the way he played from the first game that he came in with our group in the regular season and then throughout the playoffs."

-- Alexander Wennberg's play is one thing Kekalainen was certain about.

Wennberg's numbers took a significant dip this season, but he missed extended time with two separate injuries and played through pain for the bulk of the year. He also missed three games in the playoff series after being struck in the head in Game 1 during an illegal hit by Capitals forward Tom Wilson.

"I'm 100 percent confident with Wennberg that he's going to have a great year next year," Kekalainen said. "He played through a lot this year with his injuries. There were a lot of painful injuries, real injuries, that affected his game … that a lot of people would not play through and he did. I give him credit for it."

-- There will be a heavy Blue Jackets influence at the world championships.

Kekalainen named seven Columbus players or prospects who he thinks will compete in Denmark next month, including forward Cam Atkinson (U.S), center Pierre-Luc Dubois (Canada), defenseman Ryan Murray (Canada), defenseman Markus Nutivaara (Finland), defenseman Dean Kukan (Switzerland), center prospect Alexandre Texier (France) and goalie Matiss Kivlenieks (Latvia).

Blue Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito is also running Team USA as its general manager for the tournament and Kekalainen said he'll be attending to watch games and scout.

"I'm proud of those guys," he said. "It's a chance to win something. That, [in] itself, is something every athlete that's a proud professional athlete is always playing to win. Now we're out of the playoffs. This gives them a chance to win something."

QUOTABLE

"Our job here is to analyze and evaluate every game, every individual, how our team plays, coaches, everything. That's what we do all day, every day and now we have too much time on our hands to do that and kind of wrap up the season." - Jarmo Kekalainen, Blue Jackets general manager.

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