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Blue Jackets expected to stick with low-key approach to free agency

GM Kekalainen to BlueJackets.com: 'We're a draft-and-develop team. We don't believe in going crazy on July 1.'

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Those who've followed the Blue Jackets during Jarmo Kekalainen's tenure as general manager know how free agency usually works in Columbus.

You don't hear the Blue Jackets' name attached to any of the top pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) because it's not really part of the culture Kekalainen has established within the structure of the organization.

"We've been pretty quiet," Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com on Saturday. "We've always told everybody or said to everybody we're a draft-and-develop team. We don't believe in going crazy on July 1 and putting too much term on the table."

Instead, the Blue Jackets prefer to draft well, cultivate that talent and systematically bring up new additions to the roster from within the system. It's more cost efficient, working within the constraints of the NHL's salary-cap system, and it gives the team's front office more certainty - with players having to go through a term of restricted free agency before they can test the open market as UFAs.

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It also gives them a better chance to earn the trust of their own draft picks, along with the signatures of undrafted free agents, when they offer a quicker NHL start date.

"Some teams have lots of cap room and they use it, and they're willing to do the term and grow with that guy," Kekalainen said. "We have a lot of good prospects coming from within, that we want to make sure they get opportunities. That's really important for us, that when we develop our guys or sign college free agents and European free agents and talk to them about opportunity, that there's a real opportunity there for them to be in that pursuit ... so it's not just talk. We're going to make sure that we live up to our talk."

Two years ago, that meant defenseman Markus Nutivaara - taken 189th overall in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL Draft - going to training camp with a real shot of making the team in 2016-17. Nutivaara, 24, made the team, played 66 games as a rookie and just signed a four-year contract extension in March - after an impressive sophomore season.

This year, there will be a whole new crop of young players pushing to do the same.

Defensemen Dean Kukan, Gabriel Carlsson and Scott Harrington will all go into training camp looking to fill spots that will likely be vacated by departures of veterans through free agency - while rookie forwards Jonathan Davidsson, Eric Robinson, Vitaly Abramov and Alex Broadhurst will do the same up front.

Carlsson, taken 29th overall in the same draft as Nutivaara (2015), will head into next season looking to play his way back into the lineup - after starting out in Columbus for 2017-18, getting injured, losing his starting spot and then playing the bulk of the year with the Cleveland Monsters in the American Hockey League.

Kukan got a brief look with the Blue Jackets last season, filling in during an injury-plagued stretch in February, while Harrington hopes to earn an everyday role after being used in spot duty the past two years.

Veterans Jack Johnson, Ian Cole and Taylor Chorney could all sign with new teams as free agents, along with veteran forwards Matt Calvert, Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu - creating multiple openings up for grabs in September.

"Calvert was a great soldier," Kekalainen said of the longest-tenured Blue Jackets player on the roster. "If we lose him, we'll replace him with one of the guys we have coming from within, and the same goes for Jack Johnson or Ian Cole. We have Gabriel Carlsson, we have Harrington and Kukan, who are already licking their chops to try to get an opportunity to play full-time in the top six and have paid their dues to do that. So, that's what's going to happen."

It hasn't always been this way.

Kekalainen did land one big free agent back in his first season on the job, signing power forward Nathan Horton to a seven-year contract on July 5, 2013, worth a reported $37.1 million ($5.3 million average annual value).

Horton played just 36 games in 2013-14 because of shoulder and groin injuries - and then endured a major back surgery prior to the next season, at age 29. Kekalainen traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 26, 2015 in a deal prior to the NHL Trade Deadline for forward David Clarkson, but Clarkson was also plagued by injuries and played only 26 games for Columbus - including just three in 2015 following the trade.

Clarkson had five years left on his own seven-year contract when the Blue Jackets acquired him, which combined with his own debilitating back injury led to Columbus packaging him with two high draft picks in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. As part of the deal, Vegas agreed to select center William Karlsson in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft rather than forward Josh Anderson or goalie Joonas Korpisalo.

The way that whole string uncoiled, it's easy to see why the Blue Jackets prefer to promote from within, now that Kekalainen and his hockey-operations department have filled the organizational system with prospects they like a lot.

"We signed one free agent in Nathan Horton, basically, as one of those big names in July," Kekalainen said. "That's the only big signing we've done in my five years here and it didn't turn out too well. Not that it means we're never going to do it again, but we're a draft-and-develop team and when we see the right fit and the right term at the right time, then we might take that approach. Other than that, we're usually fairly careful and cautious of overpaying or giving too much term - unless we feel that it's the right fit, long-term, for our club."

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