COLUMBUS, Ohio – Often times, the noise becomes far too loud this time of year.
Whispers become rumors and rumors become speculation and speculation can go just about anywhere. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen did his best to block all of it out when it came to pending restricted free agent Seth Jones, one of his top two defensemen and a franchise building block at 21 years old.
Every summer, there seem to be a dozen teams on the hunt for a defenseman. And with his expiring contract, there was plenty of that noise surrounding Jones – but both he and his general manager chose not to acknowledge it.
Both parties wanted to get a deal done in advance of July 1, and they arrived at that juncture on Wednesday morning.
Jones’ six-year deal means he remains one of the Blue Jackets’ building blocks on the back end, leading the way for a defense corps that has undergone significant change in the last 12 months. The club’s top-four defensemen could all be 25 years old or younger come September: Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard and incoming 18-year-old Zach Werenski, who many (including Kekalainen) believe will play his way on to the big team this fall.
Getting this deal done and securing another big piece to the back end was, needless to say, a priority for the team and the player.
“It’s a good day for the organization,” Kekalainen said. “This was one of our priorities to get Seth signed and for the long term. We feel that he’s a huge part of the young core that we believe in moving into the future. We’re very happy to be done with this now, having him under contract for the next six years and part of our plan.”
Jones’ intent was always to sign an extension with the Blue Jackets.
In a short period of time, he became close with his new teammates and integrated seamlessly into the dressing room. He took on a larger role than he had in Nashville and quickly earned the trust of John Tortorella, who was new to the team himself (less than three months on the job).
There were potential options externally, sure, but the only option for Jones was to stay in Columbus.
“I had no thoughts of signing with another team,” Jones said. “I really wanted to get something done before July 1. I enjoy being in Columbus and I like the way the team is going, and we have a good young core here. I wanted to stay here and get something done. I wanted to get it out of the way and start focusing on the season; the more you drag it out, the more it can become a problem. I wanted to get it done as soon as possible.
“Now I know I’m going to be here for a long time and I’m extremely happy about that. This summer, I’m training hard and I’ll be ready. We can only go up from here and we’re going to continue to grow as a team, and hopefully, I can continue to grow as an individual as well.”
That individual growth, coupled with the stable of young defensemen both at the NHL and potentially on the way, gives the Blue Jackets a much better feeling about their defense than this time a year ago.
Nothing is guaranteed, mind you, and there’s plenty of track to be covered before training camp begins in September – but Kekalainen and his staff feel they’ve made significant progress in their quest to improve the blue line in a year’s time. The pain of a wasted season still burns, and he believes they have the horses to bounce back.
“We have 23 roster spots and we have a firm plan on some players and players we think will make our team,” Kekalainen said. “Their play will tell us if they make our team or not, and what kind of an impact they have on our team, and that’s to be determined at training camp.
“We have what we believe is a good core. We had a terrible season. We’ve learned from it and we’re going to be better because of it. It doesn’t matter what I say – it’s on the ice where we have to show it. I think we’ll be better because of our young players growing and growing together to become a team that can compete for playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.”