He might not have seen it this way, but to many, this was a bit of a referendum season on Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
After such names as Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel left the organization over the summer, pretty much every NHL expert decreed that Columbus would be on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff race.
Kekalainen, meanwhile, had a much rosier outlook on things. He pointed to the team's core -- such players as Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, to name a few -- as a reason there would be no backsteps, and he touted such European additions as Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Vladislav Gavrikov and Elvis Merzlikins as well as free-agent signee Gus Nyquist as reasons the team would again be able to compete with the best in the NHL.
Through 29 games, when the Blue Jackets were 11-14-4 and 11 points out of a playoff spot, NHL observers were right. After the last 22, when Columbus has gone 16-2-4 and vaulted into a wild card spot, Kekalainen has looked like a man who knew what he was talking about.
Time will tell what the rest of the season has in store, but with 31 games to play, the Blue Jackets will be playing big games down the stretch as they chase a fourth straight playoff appearance. That in and of itself is a win for Kekalainen, who said he would produce a team that would be in the race and has done exactly that.
With that in mind, BlueJackets.com caught up with Kekalainen before the All-Star break to discuss how the season has gone, what might be coming next, and what he likes most about his team this season.
BlueJackets.com: Maybe the most enjoyable thing to watch this year is that you have so many players stepping into new roles this season, whether they be veterans who had to do different things or youngsters coming over from Europe or players coming up from the AHL. As the season has gone on, it seems like those players have grown in those roles. Has that been fun to watch for you, to see the guys progress as the season has gone on?
Jarmo Kekalainen: "Yeah. Opportunity is a wonderful thing. Even in my old job when I was doing the scouting and running the drafts, it was fun to see the guys developing and getting those opportunities and then taking advantage of it and running with it. We have a lot of guys who have done that this year. It's gratifying for the work that we do in drafting players and developing players, and then them succeeding and becoming big parts of our team. Vladislav Gavrikov this year is one that has had a lot of impact along with the guys, but he's a guy that we drafted in the sixth round that comes in and takes a regular spot on the team and makes our team better. It's the same thing with some of the forwards that probably wouldn't have gotten a chance to play if we hadn't had injuries. It's a good thing. It gets our depth tested, and we believed in it. We said we think our depth is very good. It's been tested and proven good, so those are good things."
This team is again in the playoff race. It's probably not the way you would have thought you would have gotten there given the first 30 games compared to the last 20, but now you're in a spot where you could be a postseason team. Is this what you thought the team would be on balance, even if you didn't get there the way you thought you would?
"Yeah. Our goal was to make the playoffs -- is to make the playoffs. We believe we have the type of team that can make the playoffs. To be in the situation again where it's within reach and our grasp again, it's obviously a lot better than being three games below .500 where we were at our worst and kind of scratching our heads, thinking, 'What the hell happened?' So yeah, teams take different routes to where they get, but now we're in that picture again. We can see it's right in front of us, but we have a lot of work to do and have to keep playing well if we want to achieve that goal."
Coming into the season, the storyline across the sport was everybody that was lost from your roster, but you said that you believed in the guys that you have and thought this was going to be a good team. Is there any vindication for you to see where you are right now? I know you're not someone who looks for that, but at the same time, it was almost billed as the outside vs. the inside, and this team has become what you said it would be.
"To me, I said it at the beginning of the year, that was aggravating to me to hear that all the time because it was disrespectful to the guys that we have here that have been a huge part of our success before. It's not that we were successful because of the guys that aren't here. We were successful because of our core, and those guys were part of it. It's not taking anything away from those players who left. They were good players, but we have a core group in place here, and it's a strong core group and we keep building, and that's why it was aggravating. We have our own expectations and we believe that we know our team the best, better than anybody from the outside. We know our players best, so everybody is entitled to their opinion, but it was aggravating to me because of the disrespect it showed our core group."
Early in the season you said were you scratching your head and wondering what was happening. Was it hard to be patient through those first 30 games, knowing there's probably a better team in the locker room than what was happening results-wise? What was that like for you?
"It's frustrating, obviously, but there's no perfect science to how teams work and how they become successful, and adversity is a big part of it. You have to go through it to be able to win something, and it's better to get it out of the way early on in the year than at the wrong time at the end of the year. So hopefully it was a good lesson for us, how we need to work every day and how we need to work as a group, as a team, every day to be successful. That's really been what we've talked about right from the start of the year is the only way we're going to achieve anything, to get any success in this league, is we have to do it together as a team. And now the last month has been great proof of that."
You mentioned battling adversity there. What has it been like to watch this team go through not just the slow start but the injuries and all that and become a team that has become stronger through everything it has had to go through?
"That's why I think it's important that at some point you have some of that. It builds the team, it builds character, it builds character on an individual and a team level. You don't really go looking for it sometimes. Sometimes good coaches create some of that with what they do. But life is full of lessons, and we certainly have gotten our share of lessons in the past so it's going to make us stronger."
To get through that, you need two groups of people to really perform well -- your coaching staff, and then your scouts who have done a great job finding players across the world who have stepped right in. What can you say about the job those two groups have done to keep this group afloat?
"An excellent job. I was mentioning in another interview here that everybody talks about how strong our defense is, and we have four defensemen out of the 2015 draft -- Zach Werenski, Gabriel Carlsson, Gavrikov was in the sixth round, and Markus Nutivaara was in the seventh round. That's remarkable. That's a great job by our amateur scouting staff."
And then the coaching staff as well to keep this going?
"Yeah. John Tortorella and his staff, we have a lot of good coaches there. Brad Larsen does an excellent job for us, Brad Shaw, (Paul MacLean) has been a great addition to our group, Manny (Legace) with the goalies. You can just look at him, he's done a really good job with our goaltenders. And Kenny McCudden is a guy that we rely on with his process of making guys better. Danny Singleton, his job is tough. You have to be right every time we challenge, and he has been. It's a great staff there, and Torts does a great job of leading it."
One thing Torts has mentioned a couple of times recently is this team is still looking for more goal scoring. You get guys like Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand back and Josh Anderson hopefully soon. As those guys come back they can help out, but do you feel like there's enough there as you look at the roster, or is there more in there?
"I think there's more in our room. Cam struggled a bit early on, Bjorkstrand is getting going right now. I think Josh Anderson is going to get going for sure. He's going to get back to his old self. He's gone through some struggles scoring goals. I think that there's going to be plenty of that. Bjorkstrand is on a 30-goal pace in a full season, but he missed some time. Cam is always going to score goals. He's scored goals before Panarin got here, and he's going to score goals after Panarin left. That has nothing to do with it. He had 35 goals the year before we had Panarin. Can you get better? I think you can always get better at each area of the game, whether it's scoring or our defense -- the strength of our team, it can get better, there's no question about it. So yeah, we're going to look for ways to get better in each area."
I have to ask about the goaltenders because that's been quite the storyline of late. Who knows how playing time breaks down the rest of the year, but it's better to have two goaltenders than zero. Have you been impressed with how the guys have taken the roles they've been given and run with them?
"Again, it's about the opportunity. We saw glimpses of (Joonas) Korpisalo when Bobrovsky got hurt and he had to play a few more games in a row that he's capable of doing it and carrying the load. The toughest job in the league is probably playing only once in two weeks in the second half of back-to-backs against a rested team on the road, and that's what Korpisalo had to do the last couple of years. We probably hadn't seen what he's capable of doing except in stretches where he got to carry the load when Bobrovsky was hurt. Elvis started the same way this year. He was only getting the second night of back-to-backs and playing every two or three weeks. He had to stay in game shape and go to Cleveland to play a few games, and then he got the opportunity because Korpi got hurt and now he had to play every night and was successful. We believed in their talent all along. It's just about doing it at the right time and winning and doing it as a team, and they are a big part of it. We're very happy for both of them, but there's lots of work ahead of us."
Lastly, with the trade deadline upcoming, it's a little bit of a different situation from a year ago. But at the same time, you're always listening, you're always talking to teams. Do you have a sense of what this deadline could have in store for you?
"We'll see. We're not in a similar situation now because we don't have any pending UFAs, big ones that are more than likely going to depart, so we are going to keep building this with patience. Our philosophy has always been to draft and develop, and our core group is from our own guys, whether it is through a trade of our own drafted players or our drafted players. It's a tight group of guys and we want to keep it together so they learn to win together and learn to go through these situations together. But again, if there is an opportunity to make us better, we'll always keep our eyes and our ears open."