Welcome to NHL draft week.
Over the coming days, the work to reshape the Blue Jackets roster will take place in earnest. The draft begins Friday, to be followed by the team's annual development camp, the restricted free agent period, and then the opening of the NHL free agency window.
And as it begins, very few teams have been discussed as much as the Columbus Blue Jackets. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen and his team knew going into the February trade deadline that stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky were unrestricted free agents-to-be, and conventional NHL wisdom said it would make sense to consider trading them before potentially seeing them leave over the summer.
Instead, Kekalainen was aggressive at the deadline, acquiring four more potential UFAs in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid.
Of course, it paid off with the franchise's first-ever postseason series win in the opening round vs. Tampa Bay, though the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup wasn't in the cards as Columbus lost to Boston in the second round. The moves cemented Kekalainen's reputation as a general manager without fear when it comes to making the big move, but to many the plan came with great risk.
As a result of a number of deals, Columbus at this moment goes into this week's draft boasting just two picks -- a third-rounder (81 overall) and a seventh-round choice (212 overall). With all six pending UFAs still unsigned, an air of uncertainty reigns over the Blue Jackets' offseason plans.
So where does the team go from here? BlueJackets.com sat down with Kekalainen in his office last week to talk about the draft, free agency and other plans for next season.
BlueJackets.com: You announced a number of promotions last week in the front office as well as the addition of Rick Nash to the team. Do you feel really good about the consistency of keeping this front office group together with what you've been able to build here?
Kekalainen: "Yeah. I think it's very important to me to be able to trust the people, know the people, enjoy working with them. We know we have very capable, intelligent and loyal people here. Those are the qualities we're looking for. They're all team players, and that's why we promoted a few of them because of what they've done. They've earned it and it deserve it. I look forward to it continuing."
You've said a couple of times you're not really worried about what is going to happen (this summer), that you feel good about this team. It almost seems like whenever you say that, people don't believe you because all of the talk is about the free agents potentially not coming back. What makes you so confident and comfortable with what you've built here that you have a pretty good thing going no matter what happens July 1?
Kekalainen: "Because I think I have a pretty good feel on what we have as a team. I live and watch this team every day. I respect the opinions of our fans and their concerns; I definitely do. But this is my job, and I believe in our team. I believe in the individuals. I believe in their ability to fill the holes, if needed. I believe in our core group.
"That's the one thing I've said all along: (The core) is going to be in place. It's not going anywhere. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson, those guys are still here. I can keep going -- Oliver Bjorkstrand. We have a lot of good forwards that are still going to be here. We have very good depth on defense starting with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, Vladislav Gavrikov, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington played great too at the end. So we have very good depth on defense.
"And then there will be some questions on goaltending if Bobrovsky wants to move on. But you look at the stretches where Joonas Korpisalo had to carry more of the net when Bobrovsky was hurt, he was more than a .920 goalie through those stretches. He's waited for this opportunity. If it comes, great, and then he'll have to battle for ice time with Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen, maybe. Those are all talented goalies, and time will tell how they do if they have to carry more of a load, but I'm confident that they are ready for the opportunity, ready for the task."
A year ago at this time, you said that players come and go, and at the end of the day you always have to have a pipeline of players ready to come in who can fill holes. Do you feel good about some of the younger guys you have now if they need to do that going forward?
Kekalainen: "There's going to be a free agent market that we're going to look at, and every option that we have come July 1 even if all of the guys we had this year leave. And then depending on what happens, Alexandre Texier is going to get a great opportunity. He's already showed us he can play in the NHL. Emil Bemstrom led the Swedish league in goal scoring. He's going to get an opportunity to play and show us he can do it right away in the NHL. Those are rare numbers that he put up in the Swedish League. You can look at the list of names that have done it before him, they're All-Stars in the NHL after. We'll see if he's ready or not.
"We have Sonny Milano. He had 14 goals the year before, had an injury-filled year this year unfortunately. When he would have been up with us with an opportunity, he was hurt down in Cleveland. Sometimes things work out that way. He's going to get another opportunity to play and maybe have a better year than that 14-goal season that he had. There's going to be opportunities for us to make our team better and we're going to look at them, but I'm confident in our core group."
At the end of last year, Riley Nash is the only guy on the roster you had signed as a free agent that was a key NHL contributor this past year. Everyone else had been acquired via trade or draft and develop, but you have mentioned free agency. Could this set up to be a year where the team is more active than in the past?
Kekalainen: "Time will tell what kind of opportunities are in front of us. What might be a popular choice in somebody else's mind might not be as popular in our office here. We're going to go based on what we think is best for our team.
"We did acquire Anthony Duclair last summer, who helped us before we traded him to Ottawa. Who knows? We had Sam Gagner the year before. So we're going to look at every opportunity, and there's going to be some opportunities that are going to be in front of us. We might be able to get players signed that will help us right away knowing that those guys are veteran NHL players and knowing what they can do and what they would do for us, but again, I can't emphasize enough the fact that we really believe in the core group.
"I also believe that our core group is going to get better. There's no reason to think that Seth Jones and Zach Werenski couldn't get better. There's no reason to think that Pierre-Luc Dubois is not getting to a whole 'nother level next season. Oliver Bjorkstrand, if he can keep projecting like he did in the second half of the season, look out. Texier -- a lot of different players. I think Alexander Wennberg is going to bounce back for sure. All those things said, I think every year we seem to be the doubted team and we've had the fourth-most wins in the league the last three seasons now.
"There's seven teams that have made the playoffs three years in a row, and we've had the fourth-most wins in the league the last three seasons. I think every year it's the same thing -- we're getting doubted, that if we don't get this or if we don't get that, then we're not going to be (in a good spot). Or if we lose (whoever), then we're gonna be (in trouble). But I believe in a strong core, we believe in a strong core, and we have a strong core. We're going to find people around it that are going to fill some of the holes that might be created by players leaving, and we'll go from there."
Earlier, you mentioned goaltending. Would you be comfortable going into the year with the goaltenders you currently have in the organization?
Kekalainen: "Yeah. That might be our best option. We're going to look at every option there, but that might be our best option available for us. We have two, three very young goalies that let's see what they can do. Strange things can happen when a goalie gets an opportunity. Just look at St. Louis. Every goalie in this league almost, if it's not Carey Price or Martin Brodeur, has come from being a No. 2 goalie to being a starter and a star. That includes Sergei Bobrovsky, too. He was a No. 2 goalie that came here to get the opportunity to become a No. 1 goalie, and then became the No. 1 goalie and a star in the league."
The four free agents-to-be that everyone has focused on -- Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene and Dzingel -- are you in a waiting pattern to see what happens there?
Kekalainen: "We've had talks with their representatives and we have our meetings here as far as thinking what is the best course of action for our team. And then there's not only just the performance part of the equation where we look at what we think they will do for our team moving forward, then there's the financial part too and how we get everything under the cap. So putting all those things together, then we have to make decisions and we will."
You just had your scouting meetings here in Columbus, and the draft is less than a week away at this point. At the end of the season, you said it would hurt to have only two picks, and you'd try to get back some picks, but it sort of is what it is given the moves that you made at the deadline. Where do you sit right now, and do you feel there's the ability to recoup some of those picks at the draft?
Kekalainen: "We're working on it every day, and I'm fairly confident that we'll have more than two when we get to the draft, but time will tell. And if not, that was the risk that we assumed at the deadline along with a couple of prospects that we gave up in those trades. We were fine even thinking if they were just rentals. We wanted to give our team the best possible chance to win the Stanley Cup. I think we did it.
"Under those circumstances, with the team that we had for this spring, knowing that there is a chance that Bobrovsky and Panarin might leave, we felt that we needed to add in order to have a legitimate chance, and I think we proved that we had a legitimate chance. I think we had just as good a chance as anyone in this league to win the Cup. You saw the result. St. Louis won the Cup and great for them, but out of the 16 teams that make the playoffs, I think any team has a chance to win it. We felt to make it and give ourselves a chance to win it, we had to make those moves, and that's what we did.
"We beat Tampa, we couldn't beat Boston. Boston is a great team. They got all the way to the final in the seventh game and lost, but I think we were right there with anybody."