As the Blue Jackets roster for the upcoming season comes together, Jarmo Kekalainen sees a team he likes.
And a team that might not be done adding pieces as well.
Three boxes were checked off the general manager's to-do list Monday as the free agency period opened. Restricted free agents Joonas Korpisalo and Ryan Murray re-signed, while Columbus also was a player on the free agent market as veteran winger Gustav Nyquist was inked to a four-year deal.
While for many league-wide the story was about the players who left the Blue Jackets, Kekalainen still feels a team that made it to the second round of the playoffs a year ago has the chance to pick up where it left off.
"I think we have a strong team," he said. "I don't think that we have any huge holes. We've added a good player into our lineup today in Gustav Nyquist and we're happy to have him. … I think we're in a great position with the flexibility we have to make some moves, whether it's through free agency or a trade to make our team stronger. If we see an opportunity that makes sense for us, we'll be working on it."
The headlining deal of the day when it came to the Blue Jackets was the move to bring in Nyquist, who is coming off a 22-goal, 60-point season last year split between Detroit and San Jose. The winger from Sweden has topped 20 goals in four of his six full NHL seasons and averages 50 points per 82 games over his career, giving the Jackets some added punch up in a top-six role.
"A lot of different things," Kekalainen said when asked what made Nyquist such an attractive addition. "I think he's versatile. He has the speed required in today's game. He's a very durable player who played in 82 games many seasons in a row. He's coming off a great season -- 60 points last year. We covered him all year. He was one of the players we had targeted at the deadline, but he ended up going to San Jose at the time.
"He can play right side or left side. He's a left-handed shot. I think that fills a need for us. We like the player a lot."
He'll join a team that returns 12 of its top 13 point scorers from a year ago, and a squad that could still be looking to make more moves. Kekalainen wouldn't address whether he has any more specific irons in the fire after Monday's signings, but he did note the Blue Jackets remain in a good spot as it comes to roster construction.
The team still has flexibility under the salary cap -- with restricted free agents Zach Werenski and Scott Harrington still to sign, the Blue Jackets remain more than $17 million away from the cap. Kekalainen said he is confident the two defensemen will be re-signed, leaving the team the ability to still make improvements as the summer goes into fall.
"I think we're in a great position as far as flexibility in our cap situation," the GM said. "With our depth chart, we have a very strong defense with all kinds of depth. Now that we have added Gustav Nyquist, we have filled the hole that was created on the left side. There could be an opportunity with the flexibility that we have that we're going to look at -- it might be tomorrow, it might be August, it might be later in the fall, but I think we're in a great position to move forward and have all kinds of options in front of us.
"Free agency is one, but there are many other options to improve our team, and I think we've shown in the past we're not afraid to make a move if we think a trade makes our team better."
Kekalainen did say the team is not actively looking to add at the goaltender spot, meaning the Blue Jackets are likely to enter the season with Korpisalo and rookie Elvis Merzlikins manning the position. Korpisalo has been the backup for the past four seasons while Merzlikins comes over from Switzerland after some standout performances at the international level and with his club team in Lugano.
Moving out from the net, Kekalainen again pointed to the team's core group of young players as a reason he continues to feel good about the roster going forward. Nyquist and Murray join a group that includes Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Alexander Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Riley Nash, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Seth Jones, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara and Adam Clendening that are all signed through at least the next two seasons, while Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Vladislav Gavrikov and Dean Kukan are locked up for the 2019-20 campaign.
With Dubois, Werenski, Bjorkstrand, Wennberg, Nutivaara, Korpisalo, Anderson and Jones all 25 or younger going into next season, Kekalainen expects the group to keep getting better with age as well. Add in such prospects as Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy, who all will get a chance to make the team this fall, and Kekalainen was comfortable with the thought of losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and the rest of the team's UFAs.
"We're comfortable where we are right now," Kekalainen siad. "The core is in place. We've talked about it -- we accepted the risk at the deadline. We said all along even if (the trade deadline acquisitions) are all rentals, we are fine, and that's why we took the run at it. We wanted to make sure if this is the last spring with Bobrovsky and Panarin, we gave it the best shot we could. We strengthened the team because we felt that we needed to to have the best possible chance, but we assumed the risk they could all be walking and we're comfortable where we are.
"The core is strong and only going to get stronger with the age that they have. And we have some really good young players coming."