SUNRISE, Fla. – Before the NHL Draft began, the Blue Jackets were one of the teams thought to be in position to make moves. They had 10 total picks, three in the second round, and were reportedly interested in moving as high as No. 3 overall.
The only deal that materialized was a move back into the first round, allowing them to take Swedish defenseman Gabriel Carlsson at No. 29 overall, giving them two defensemen (along with top pick Zach Werenski) who were high on their pre-draft list.
Was it disappointing to not make any major deals? Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen denied that notion, and said he was absolutely content with making his seven selections on Day 2.
“It was a really good day for us,” Kekalainen said. “We got a lot of guys from high on our list, and like I said (Friday), we wanted to get defensemen because we were light on that side of the depth chart.
“We got a lot of good defensemen that we had high on our list; we got some size, we got some forwards that have size, so we feel pretty good right now.”
Their second day of the draft began with Portland Winterhawks forward Paul Bittner at No. 38 overall, a nice surprise for the Blue Jackets, who had him ranked as a first-round caliber prospect. Bittner is in the power forward mold, 6-foot-4 with a solid skill set and experience playing with elite players – one of them being his friend and fellow Columbus prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, a teammate in Portland.
They selected a center with ideal size and raw ability in Kevin Stenlund, and a rough-and-tumble kid in Keegan Kolesar from the Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL), who was singled out by Kekalainen.
“(Kolesar) can really body check the way you’re supposed to body check in hockey, and he can score some goals, too,” he said.
The Blue Jackets feel they balanced their depth chart this weekend, adding to an area of need on the blue line and strengthening an already-deep group of prospects at forward. They did not, however, select a goaltender and will have three in-system prospects at development camp next week (Forsberg, Dansk, Merzlikins).
Kekalainen tried to acquire another seventh-round pick, and was checking in with a few different teams as the draft wound down, but ultimately couldn’t swing a deal. He wanted to do whatever he could to arm his scouting staff, led by Ville Siren and Paul Castron, with as many picks as possible, in order to pay off their hard work throughout the year.
It’s something that Kekalainen’s former bosses tried to do while he was scouting for St. Louis and Ottawa, and has since stuck with him now that he’s a GM.
“We believe in drafting and developing,” Kekalainen said. “It’s not a perfect science. You’re not going to hit on 100 percent at the draft, but if you get 30 percent, 40 percent out of it, you’re doing really well. Now with nine picks, we might get 3-4 players out of this draft, and that would be a great number.”
They’re off to a good start in that regard, as the Jackets’ first three picks (Werenski, Carlsson and Bittner) came from their “Priority 1” list – players they had in the first round range.
“I predicted to our guys that we were going to get three out of our Priority 1 and they laughed at me,” Kekalainen said with a wry smile. “I laughed at them at the end of the draft.”
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