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Kekalainen bullish on Jackets' present and future

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

When John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen took over the Blue Jackets, they made it quite clear that their plan was one focused on a long-term vision.

Much like the St. Louis Blues – a perennial playoff contender built in large part due to Davidson and Kekalainen’s (the former assistant GM) philosophy – the Blue Jackets have developed a hard-nosed, uptempo style of play with a clear identity. Both men have readily admitted that last year’s team might have been slightly ahead of schedule, but neither could have foreseen what’s happened in 2014-15.

It started before training camp when Nathan Horton developed back pain and was essentially shut down. Then the injuries mounted, with hit after hit coming and it really hasn’t stopped since. The Blue Jackets are the undisputed leader in man games lost to injury in the NHL this season, but that’s not deterring the team’s leadership from its plan.

Part of that plan transpired at Monday’s NHL trade deadline, when veteran defenseman James Wisniewski was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for top prospect William Karlsson, Rene Bourque and a second-round pick in a deep and talented 2015 draft -- giving the Blue Jackets six picks in the top 90 selections.

The opportunity arose to make that deal because of the organization’s young players stepping up and taking hold of opportunities of their own; David Savard has continued to improve as a regular NHL defenseman, Kevin Connauton (since injured) has impressed in his time with Columbus since being acquired off waivers and Ryan Murray remains a major building block for the defense in the years ahead.

“Our defense might look very strong for next year,” Kekalainen said. “We need to add some depth obviously, and we will. I think that we’ve always had the long-term picture in mind, I think that (the team’s) emerging defensemen are already very good NHL defensemen and they’re going to be better next year when we give them a little bit more of a role with our team, added ice time, and added power play duty.

“We added a very good young centerman – centermen are hard to find – in William Karlsson, and we have those picks now, and we need to add some depth to our defense. Cody Goloubef has shown us this year that he can be an NHL-er full-time. I believe in our group right now, and we still have the offseason to make some improvements.”

Though the team has never been fully healthy in 2014-15, the Blue Jackets got a good look at some of their core players in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Boone Jenner was an impact player in that first-round series after breaking out with 16 goals in the regular season and he will be counted on for a bigger role moving forward, Ryan Johansen has locked down a No. 1 center spot and is developing into an elite player in the league, and veterans like Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky have been not only leadership presences in the room but they’ve been major contributors on the ice.

Kekalainen has seen growth and enormous potential from rookies Alexander Wennberg (who has gotten better with every game in his second stint post-recall) and Marko Dano, who appear poised to take on more responsibility both down the stretch this season and into their sophomore campaigns.

And then there’s another wave on the horizon, one that includes Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mike Reilly, Dillon Heatherington and others – so it’s fairly easy to see why Davidson and Kekalainen believe the Blue Jackets are well-positioned for both the present and the future.

“I’ve said it many times: I’d love to see our team healthy,” Kekalainen said. “Maybe the last 10 games we’ll get Boone Jenner back and Ryan Murray back and Bobrovsky back, maybe we’ll get close to what we’ll be at as a healthy team, but there’s been some great stretches of 10 games here and there where we see that we’re close to being healthy and challenging all of the best teams in the league.

“I think we have a good foundation in place, we have a lot of the key pieces locked down for many years and some of our core players we’re bringing on are going to be more experienced a year ahead next year, so I believe that we’ll have a good chance of doing some real damage next year with this group.”

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