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Kekalainen expects Blue Jackets to return strong team

Columbus GM has core in place, plan ready to go for offseason

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

So, what's next for the Columbus Blue Jackets? 

It's been only a few days since the team saw its season end with a second-round loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that's the question everyone already seems to be asking. 

For general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, though, there's a plan in place, and it'll look like his plan every single offseason. 

Video: Torts recaps the 2018-19 season

"I don't think it's going to be any more busy," Kekalainen said Wednesday as the team held its exit day interviews. "You have unrestricted free agents and you have restricted free agents every year. There are important decisions we have to make." 

So, as usual, Kekalainen and his staff will prepare for the draft, pursue trades that could help the team get better, go through free agency, sort through which younger players are ready to move up to the NHL level, and do all the other things an NHL general manager has to do every offseason. 

EXIT DAY: Follow everything the team said as it broke up for the offseason

Of course, this one does carry a certain level of intrigue to the NHL at large and to those within the Blue Jackets locker room and fan base. That's especially true after the deepest playoff advancement in franchise history, one that caught the attention of the league and the imagination of a Columbus populace that had Blue Jackets fever like never before. 

Yes, the Blue Jackets will prepare for the draft, but as of right now, the team has just two picks -- a third-rounder and a seventh-rounder -- in the seven rounds. 

And yes, the team will sort through what it wants to do in free agency, but with the knowledge that its top point scorer, longtime starting goaltender, and its trade deadline acquisitions all are unrestricted free agents.  

But Kekalainen maintains he's dealing from a position of strength as the Blue Jackets get ready to attack the offseason. That's because many pieces of the team's core are set to return, with 10 of its top 13 point scorers already under contract for next season and two others under some measure of team control as restricted free agents. 

EARLY LOOK: Breaking down what's next for CBJ 

Add in a group of prospects that Kekalainen expects to be banging on the door for playing time and he sees a team that again will be equipped to compete for a playoff spot and beyond.  

"I've said it all along, that I believe whatever happens with our pending UFAs, we are going to have a really good team after (free agency starts) July 1," Kekalainen said. "We have a very strong core in place that are all going to be here for a long time." 

That group includes Cam Atkinson, whose 41 goals tied a franchise record; such young talents as Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, all of whom topped 20 goals this past season; gritty veteran leaders like Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner; and one of the league's best defensive cores led by potential Norris Trophy winner Seth Jones.  

The biggest question marks surround Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, both of whom are among the best in the league at their craft but are set to enter unrestricted free agency. Both have said it's too early to say what will happen when they test the market, and Kekalainen didn't want to go too deep into what his discussions have been like with the duo. 

"They were great soldiers for us," the GM said. "We thank them for everything they've done. We'd love to have them back. That's what I've said since last summer and that's what I'll say again. It takes two parties to agree to a contract and future together. Time will tell." 

As for Matt Duchene, the trade deadline acquisition who came up big in the playoffs with 10 points and two game-winning goals, Kekalainen said he hopes to bring the center back to Columbus. The Blue Jackets gave up two prospects and a first-round draft pick at the deadline for Duchene and would owe Ottawa another first-round pick if Duchene inks a deal. 

"We've talked to him about our vision and our plans and all of that several times, and time will tell what his plans are and we'll find out about them," Kekalainen said. "As I said to him when we traded for him, we're fine with accepting the risk he might just be a rental, and if that's the case, that's the case. But he brought a lot of those things that we thought he would bring." 

Video: Duchene on the city of Columbus

As for his decision to make four trades at the deadline that brought in Duchene, fellow Senators forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goaltender Keith Kinkaid -- costing the team draft picks in all four cases -- Kekalainen said he didn't regret the moves, especially given the state of the team's prospect pool. 

"We thought we had a team that could compete with anybody," Kekalainen said. "I think we showed that we have a team that can compete with anybody. I thought we played probably the two best teams in the NHL in the regular season in the first two rounds and couldn't get past the second one. Now we have to get back to work on getting some more picks. Every time we're going to miss an opportunity to try to pick a player that may or may not become an NHL player, we're going to grind our teeth a little bit. 

"But we wanted to give this group the best possible chance we could to win the Cup, and that was the reason behind the philosophy. We had great support from everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom of why we were doing this, and that's why we went for it.  

"It was exciting. I'm just sad that it ended too soon, but I said it before: I'd do it again in a second. We believed in this group and I think we proved that they earned it and they were definitely worth it." 

The Blue Jackets will have at least $30 million of cap room going into the offseason, and Kekalainen made clear ownership would give management the financial arsenal to make whatever moves it feels are necessary in the offseason.  

The goal, as Kekalainen has maintained, is to build a Stanley Cup winner in the capital city. Columbus got closer than ever this spring but still left the postseason as 30 other teams will -- disappointed in the way the season finished.  

"Why be in the NHL if your goal is not to win the Stanley Cup?" he said. "That's the only trophy that is really worth competing for. I don't think any team is happy, even if they win the Presidents' Trophy and go out in the first or second round. Who cares? I'm pretty sure they would all say the same thing.  

"It's the Stanley Cup that everyone wants to win. Until you do that, you're going to keep working at it." 

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