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Kekalainen on Grigorenko signing: 'We believe in his potential'

Blue Jackets general manager tackles many topics in media teleconference

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

(Editor's note: This story was published before this statement from the Blue Jackets regarding Grigorenko's contract relased Monday evening.)

The Blue Jackets jumped into the international free agent market Monday, making news across hockey circles with the signing of Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko to a one-year deal for the 2020-21 season. 

To general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, it's the chance to add a talented player with upside -- perhaps a lot of upside. 

"Time will tell, but he's just getting into his prime as a player," Kekalainen said Monday on a media teleconference. "He's 25 years old. I think the positive thing is there are other levels for him to get to still. It's not like he's plateaued or should plateau now. I think he could keep getting better for the next five years." 

If that's the case, it would certainly be a good sign for a Blue Jackets team that sees someone who could add to the team's forward group. Grigorenko has a career mark of 22 goals and 42 assists for 64 points in 217 NHL games over parts of five seasons with Colorado and Buffalo, who made him the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft. 

The numbers don't jump off the page, but Grigorenko recaptured some of the point-producing magic that made him such a highly touted prospect over the past three years when he returned to his native Russia to play for CSKA Moscow. Grigorenko has been nearly a point-per-game player in the KHL over the past two seasons, totaling 36 goals and 93 points in 102 regular-season games while showcasing an excellent shot and solid playmaking skills. 

Given his pedigree as a player -- in addition to being a high draft pick, he was on the Russian World Juniors team three times in his younger days, and Grigorenko has been a fixture of their country's national teams in recent seasons -- there is reason to believe his upcoming North American stint could be better than his first.  

"I think he's improved as a hockey player," Kekalainen said. "We've watched him the last couple of years and have had interest in him the last couple of years. And he's improved. But time will tell on the North American side. We do believe in his potential. We do think he has a lot of those ingredients that will make a player successful over here.  

"He's had some succes here. He was drafted 12th overall and went back to Europe. He's not the first player to do that and will not be the first player to come back and have success if that's in order for him. That's something we're hoping for and projecting." 

Kekalainen said Grigorenko played mostly wing in recent seasons but could also play center, and he sees him as someone who can bring creativity to a power play as well. 

"He can play all forward positions, which is great for versatility," the CBJ general manager said. "He's a left shot, but he can play right side, left side and center. He plays special teams. He's a power-play player. We're going to see where he can fit in." 

Kekalainen notes 

Kekalainen was also asked if he had any update on when NHL hockey might resume from the coronavirus pause that took effect March 12, and while nothing is yet set in stone, the league has been keeping an eye on the sports world and the world in general as it considers ways it can get back to action. 

"We are optimistic, and there's all kinds of plans from returning to playing regular season to playing in the playoffs, to exhibition games, how long does it take, all the different scenarios," Kekalainen said. "We see golf planning to play in June with no crowds. We're monitoring the other leagues around the world. In Germany and Austria the soccer teams have been allowed to come and practice in smaller groups.  

"We're just gathering information just like everybody right now. The safety of the people comes first, and once it's safe and there's a protocol in place and we can come back safely, we're going to do that." 

--As for how he'd like to see the game come back, Kekalainen admitted he wouldn't be happy with any scenario that jumps into the postseason and the Blue Jackets not in them. 

The team hit the pause holding a playoff spot with 81 points, but the teams around them have played fewer games. As a result, Columbus would be out of the eight-team Eastern Conference playoffs if point percentage is used, and Kekalainen pointed out that wouldn't necessarily be a fair measurement because the Blue Jackets have already earned those points and there's no guarantee the teams chasing would take advantage of those games in hand.  

In other words, going directly into a 16-game playoff would be a difficult sell for the CBJ general manager. 

"If you go directly into the playoffs, I think it's going to be expanded from 16," he said. "I'm not sure there's a fair way to cut to 16 teams right away." 

--Kekalainen also was asked if he feels like a scientist right now given how much he's had to learn about infectious diseases since the coronavirus has had such a huge impact on life in recent months.  

"I do not feel like a scientist, but I do have lot more respect for the scientists and the people who are on the front lines working on this," he said. "It's awesome to see and it's really overwhelming the courage those people have and how they go about their business of saving lives and all that." 

--The GM also gave a short injury update on the Blue Jackets. He said those players who were injured when the pause hit are "progressing well" and following the timetable established by the team's medical staff at the time of their injuries. But Kekalainen said he does not believe Brandon Dubinsky, who has not skated in a game this season because of a wrist injury, has progressed and believes the forward is facing a "chronic problem." Otherwise, "We could have our full team back once we get back to playing," he said. 

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