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Kekalainen Q&A: 'We're close. We're getting there.'

With NHL Draft approaching this month, Blue Jackets GM says team is on the right track.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

It's a feeling the Blue Jackets have experienced before, watching the team that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs win the Stanley Cup.

The Washington Capitals' victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final made this the second year in a row the road to the Cup went through Columbus first, only this time it stung a little more.

This time, after the Jackets won the first two games of a first-round series against the Capitals, on the road in overtime, they were undone by four straight defeats - including two more overtime games.

It showed how close the Blue Jackets are to making a postseason run of their own, yet also how far they still need to go. Now that the season is officially over, it's a good time to look back and glance ahead, which is exactly what Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets' general manager, did Thursday at Nationwide Arena.

Kekalainen sat down with radio broadcaster Bob McElligott in front of an audience of fans, to discuss a variety of topics.

Here are some highlights of that 40-minute talk, which covered a range of topics that included the series against the Capitals, the health of defenseman Zach Werenski, the leadership skills of his defense partner, Seth Jones, the value of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois' bright future, the upcoming draft and more:

On the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup:

JK: "That just tells you how close we are too. It was a great series. Obviously disappointing to go out in six games, but we're here in Game 3 and all we need is that one goal in the overtime and we're up 3-0 in the series. That's why they keep the score. We couldn't score that one more goal and they did. The margins are so small. Same thing in Game 5. We're tied in Washington. We put them [on] the ropes, outshoot them 16-1 in the third period, scoring chances were 10-0 for us … can't score that one goal and they did. And that's why they are where they are right now.

"Obviously, they won [three] more series after that, so it's a long road, and it takes a lot of experience, it takes a lot of good players, it takes a lot of depth … but we're close. We're getting there. We're getting into the right direction, and this is valuable experience for our guys that are young and haven't been through it yet. Now, they know a little bit more about how hard it is to win a series. I'm sure our guys have been watching every series after we lost and thinking about Washington, how close we were to [taking] a 3-0 lead or a 3-2 lead in the series, and you've still got to win that fourth. A lot of 'ifs' there, so even though we're close, we're far … but we are getting into the right direction and I'm really excited about our team."

On Werenski's injury, how it affected him and how important it is to have him healthy, forming a potent defense duo with Jones:

JK: "It's going to be huge. Zach played through a lot of pain. That's just simply put. When they opened his shoulder up and finally saw what the injury was, there was a significant injury there and he had to play through a lot of pain, the whole season basically. He got hurt early-on and just played through it, kept playing through it. He played with a brace that he could hardly move with and tried to shoot with that brace. When your arm moves, like, this much, it's pretty hard, battling for loose pucks in the corner. It affects everything, and he didn't ever complain or use it as an excuse. He just kept playing through it and playing through it, and now he'll be healthy for next year.

"And the growth of those young guys as leaders, that's going to be a big deal for our team. I think there are a lot of other guys, too, that have that potential on our team, and those young guys have to take over. They have to take over the team and, first lead by example, like Seth does night in and night out, and then [become] those leaders in the locker room too, dragging everybody into the fight and making sure that things are done the right way, every day. That's the true leadership. It always starts with leading by example. But we're excited about those young guys and their potential.

"Seth Jones got better this year. There's no reason why he shouldn't get better for next year, and the year after, and the year after that. He's just tapping into his potential, 24-years old, and Zach's even younger. And usually you say it takes at least 200 games as a defenseman to truly learn what [the] National Hockey League's all about. Zach's not even there yet and Seth just passed that threshold. But those guys, the sky's the limit for those two guys."

Video: Kekalainen discusses Werenski's injury and recovery

On Panarin exceeding expectations in his first season with Columbus:

JK:  "Yeah, he did and then some, and the biggest thing about him, and it may be a bit of a surprise - although we felt that we'd done our homework on his character very well, too - was that he is a great teammate and he is a great pro. So, he sets that example. He doesn't speak a lot. His English is getting better. He's not the mouthiest guy in the locker room, where he's talking all the time. He's got a great sense of humor, but you kind of have to pull it out of him, but he sets the example and the standard every day the way he works, and that's leadership at its best.

"He doesn't have to say anything when he comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face and works and has that 100 percent commitment - and then shows up for every game too, and produces results. We've been very fortunate to have him and he's been a great addition to our group."

Video: Kekalainen talks about Panarin exceeding expectations

On Dubois' big rookie season:

JK: "Well, I think with guys like that, 19-years old, you're kind of surprised every night when he grabs onto more and more responsibility and takes on more and more challenges. You want to expect it, you want it to happen, but you can never really put a timetable on it. That's the same thing as when he came here the first year. We're thinking, 'Well, physically, he seems ready. He's a big guy. He's 210 pounds, he's 18-years old, but he just wasn't mentally ready yet to play with the big boys, and that's why he had to go back to junior. And that happens a lot. It happens with a lot of great players. It's happened to Hall-of-Famers, where they went back not only once, but twice, and then played 20 years in the National Hockey League.

"I know guys who started at 21 years of age or 22 years of age, Teemu Selanne, good friend of mine, played 22 years in the league but started as a 22-year old in the National Hockey League and went into [the] Hall-of-Fame last year. So, everybody's at their own pace. They get physically mature in their own schedule. They get mentally mature in their own schedule. And Pierre-Luc was a different guy this year. We had big expectations for him. That's obviously why we took him third overall. And the pundits, that you mention, the guys that were the loudest criticizing us, probably never saw him play. That's the funny part of the social-media experts."

Video: Kekalainen details Dubois' rookie season

On whether this offseason is easier to navigate without an expansion draft preceding the 2018 NHL Draft:

JK: "Yeah, it is. It was unfortunate. If we'd had the expansion draft the year before, we wouldn't have lost … we wouldn't have lost, really, anybody that was part of our core or part of our future. And last year is when the [expansion] draft was, and it was just unfortunate that we had three or four guys that we did not want to lose, but we had to lose one good player. And that's, when you pay $500 million to the NHL teams for the expansion fee, I guess you deserve a good team and [Vegas] got a good team. And they've done a great job with their team too, and that's why they are where they are now.

"Now, we can just concentrate on the draft. There's a lot of talk, obviously, going in there. I've been with Ottawa. When I worked for Ottawa, we had the 21st pick in the draft. The morning of the draft, we had second overall and 21st pick overall. So, things can change quickly too. Our scouts are going to be ready, and those tough decisions, whether we're at third overall, like we were with Pierre-Luc Dubois, and our head scout, Ville Siren and [assistant head amateur scout] Chris Morehouse, did most of the work with him, where they were certain with all the pressure that was on them, too, 'How is our list?' those guys stuck to their guns and said, 'This is the guy we need to take, no matter what the experts are saying.' And we got a great player there. So, they're ready, wherever we're picking, whether we pick 18th or 10th or third, or 10th and 18th, they're going to be ready with their list and that's what we're going to follow."

On the Jackets' organizational state-of-mind following another painful playoff defeat:

JK: "Well, I think we've learned, again, and those are hard lessons. They're disappointing and there's lot of heartache, and the offseason is long for us to think about it. It's too long, when you think about it. It's a little bit bitter. We were so close to being able to put [the Capitals] right into the ropes, and they are a great team, Washington. We were able to have them in such a great place for us to just … deliver that one more knockout punch, but we couldn't. So, it's a bitter summer for us.

"It's a long summer for us to think about it, but I think we'll be stronger again next year, because of that experience. And as hard of a lesson as it is, they are very valuable. And most of the teams that … you know, you look at some of the greatest championship teams and organizations that won championships [for] years in a row, like Edmonton had that dynasty and [the New York Islanders], if you go back, where they won four in a row … how many times they had to be disappointed before they got that first win. And once they learned to win, then that taste of it took over."

On most great teams having to bottom out at some point in order to win it all:

JK: "Hopefully, we don't have to visit there anymore and we can grow and our young core is going to get the taste of that success and they're never going to let it go again. Like I said, once we get there, I think we're going to be there for a while. And that's the goal of the organization, is that we get to that level of sustained success, where every year we're one of those teams that everybody thinks that, 'They have a really good chance to win the Stanley Cup.'"

Watch the full Q&A session below:

Video: Kekalainen reflects on the season and what's ahead

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