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Jackets open to all options for improvement

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

One of Jarmo Kekalainen's core beliefs is to do business sans fear. Whether it's fear of mistakes or general apprehension, the Blue Jackets' general manager wants none of it from his staff.

With that mantra in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kekalainen - entering his first draft week as an NHL general manager and also his first at the helm of the Blue Jackets - is not dismissing any possibilities when it comes to what may happen this weekend in New Jersey.

The Blue Jackets are in a pretty good position: they own a trio of first-round picks and four selections in the first 44, and as John Davidson told last week, the club will (at worst) emerge from the first round with three highly-regarded players should they choose to retain all of their picks.

That's not a guarantee, though, and with conversations heating up around the NHL, Kekalainen is all ears and will explore anything to make his team better.

Does that mean there are no "off limits" players in those discussions? Never say never, but after the impressive stretch run by the Blue Jackets in 2013, any and all moves will be made to either bolster the team's future assets or add to a team that displayed a strong degree of camaraderie and competitiveness in its playoff push.

“I always say that Wayne Gretzky got traded, so I don’t know who should be untouchable that way," Kekalainen said. "I think we have a good group of guys, good chemistry in the room. The team had some success with this chemistry and this lineup that we had here, so I think that’s something you don’t want to really touch or tinker or fix if it’s not broken.

"I think that’s something that we take very seriously and whatever we have to consider, that’s something we’re going to always think about. But again, Wayne Gretzky got traded, so I don’t want to declare anyone untouchable.”

And when a particular draft is as important as this year's is to the franchise (Kekalainen and president of hockey operations John Davidson are not shy to disclose their opinions on this), there is an element of perspective required when assessing the value of their draft picks. Is it better to make three selections in the first round, package assets and move into the top five or trade for immediate help?

Is a particular first-round pick guaranteed to become a top-flight NHL player? These points are likely to be subjected to intense debate in the days leading up to the draft, and Kekalainen wants to make sure the scouting staff has every possible resource to make the best decisions.

"I think it’s a great opportunity for our franchise, and I think it’s a great opportunity for our scouts to make a big difference for us," Kekalainen said of the draft. "But again, I am cautious about thinking that with these three first-round picks that we are going to bring in players to make an impact right away. I think you have to let the players show where they are in that process before jumping into that conclusion or even the optimistic hope that they are going to come in and make an impact.

"If we pick three players, we’re going to let them come to training camp. We're going to evaluate where they’re at and put them into a situation where they belong and where they can succeed rather than rushing them into our lineup and trying to make them into NHL players if they’re not ready for it.”

With a multitude of options at hand, where might the Blue Jackets turn to improve their NHL roster in the short term? Trades are always possible and the draft is known for its flurry of dealing both before and during the proceedings; the Blue Jackets made a pre-draft trade last year in Pittsburgh (Bobrovsky), and the host Penguins made the biggest trade in sending Jordan Staal to Carolina.

There's also free agency, which opens on July 5 and is preceded by a "talking period" 48 hours before the UFA bell. That means teams and free agents-to-be are allowed to do some informal recruiting and hold conversations prior to the official start of free agency without the exchange of assets between clubs that hold the players' rights, which may be a way for teams to get ahead of the game.

But wherever they turn, the Blue Jackets' approach to acquiring players will not change: the persons of interest must be competitive, selfless and eager to be part of the new era of hockey in Columbus - and it has to make sense for the Blue Jackets and the player.

"(In free agency) you’re going to have potentially 29 other teams interested in the same player," Kekalainen said. "No matter how much may want the player and have a real good package and offer the great contract and all the other advantages you think you may have, the player still might like the team next to you better. I think the draft is a real good opportunity for us both in trying to trade or make picks.

"If there’s a player that makes sense for us not only in the short term but in the long term, to trade for one of our first round picks, that’s definitely something that we’ll consider. We’ve had some talks about that type of situation, but nothing conclusive yet, so we’ll keep working at it.”

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