TORONTO -- The level of talent in the early stages of the 2013 NHL Draft has the potential to be as good as it's ever been, according to Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
So you can bet your bottom dollar that possessing three picks in the first round is something Kekalainen is thrilled about. The team is locked in at No. 14 and No. 19, with the third choice undetermined for now.
"It seems like it's a good draft, but I always am kind of cautious about getting too excited about the good drafts or too pessimistic when people say it's a down year because someone will always surprise you in a good way or, unfortunately, in a bad way," Kekalainen told NHL.com at the NHL Scouting Combine. "Either way, we're excited for our franchise with three first-round picks."
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Kekalainen, who was named the first European general manager in NHL history on Feb. 13, was GM of Jokerit in Finland's top league prior to getting his opportunity in Columbus. He's not only privy to the top North Americans on the board, but also those playing overseas -- in particular, NHL Central Scouting's No. 1-ranked European prospect, Aleksander Barkov of Tappara in Finland.
"Barkov was one of the leading scorers in the Finnish league and I don't think I've ever seen a guy at that age (17) score that many points or be the No. 1 center for a team that went all the way to the final," Kekalainen said.
Barkov is here at the Combine and will undergo his medical examination Friday but forego any physical fitness testing because he had offseason shoulder surgery. He told NHL.com he will resume skating next week.
Barkov sustained his injury on the first shift of his team's playoff game against IFK Helsinki on March 27 and was sidelined the remainder of the season. He finished the regular season with 21 goals, 48 points and a plus-18 rating in 53 games for Tappara. He then produced four assists and a plus-3 rating in five playoff matches.
The Blue Jackets have their own pick at No. 14, as well as the Los Angeles Kings' pick from the Jeff Carter trade last season, and the New York Rangers' pick (No. 19) from the Rick Nash trade this summer. (The Kings' pick will be determined at the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs)
Owning three first-round picks is a nice luxury to have, but would Kekalainen be willing to trade at least one if approached with a worthwhile offer?
"We're going to keep our options open and we're going to be open for talks," he said. "I've expressed the willingness to move one of those picks [prior to making a selection] if we could get some help for our team. But we're not looking for any short-term fix or a quick solution. We're looking for a top prospect in return or a player that's still young and can contribute for our team for the long term.
"We might be looking to move up, or move back, but it all comes down to what's available at the time our pick comes up."
Kekalainen is a firm believer in drafting the next best available player; he also knows an exception could be made at the top of the opening round when a team might draft for a need at a particular position.
"I think you'll find a lot of opinions; there are a lot of good prospects at the top and at the end of the day, everyone is going to make their own decision, but it's probably closer this year than in some of the other years," Kekalainen said. "When it's close, and especially with the multiple picks we have, a tiebreaker could be selecting a position of need. As a principle, though, I would always take the best player available."
Kekalainen's reasoning behind that is simple.
"Your needs might change by the time that player is ready to contribute for your team," he said. "It usually takes four to five years. Suppose one draft year we are in need of a defender, and we choose a defender. But what happens in four to five years when we all of a sudden have a completely different picture with our team?"
Kekalainen joined the St. Louis Blues as an assistant GM and director of amateur scouting in 2002, and he aided in the drafting of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forwards T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron and David Backes.
It's interesting to note that Kekalainen had three first-round picks during the 2007 draft while with the Blues and opted for forward Lars Eller (No. 13), defenseman Ian Cole (No. 18) and forward Perron (No. 26).
The top three North American skaters, according to Central Scouting, are defenseman Seth Jones of the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks; center Nathan MacKinnon of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Halifax Mooseheads; and wing Jonathan Drouin, also of the Mooseheads.
Kekalainen is hesitant to admit there's a consensus No. 1 pick.
"Sometimes there's a clear-cut No. 1 but then that player doesn't turn out to be the No. 1 player of that draft," Kekalainen said. "Our scouts evaluate and put them in an order. At the end of the year, they'll have their minds made up and we'll get together for meetings after the Combine to finalize our list."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer