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Kekalainen on drafting: "it's not rocket science, just hard work"

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Jarmo Kekalainen knows exactly what has helped him reach this point in his career, and he's not about to deviate for the sake of change.

He will often joke that his NHL playing career wasn't anything to brag about, playing 55 games over five years and accumulating 13 points in the process. But his goal has never been about individual achievement or recognition -- he simply wants to win the Stanley Cup.

Since he was never able to fulfill that dream as a professional hockey player, the next opportunity came while wearing a suit and tie. He joined the Ottawa Senators' front office in 1999 after spending four years with IFK Helsinki and it was there, in Canada's capital city, that he discovered a strong passion for being a manager in the NHL.

His drafts in Ottawa were highly productive; names such as Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Ray Emery, Brooks Laich and Sami Salo were Kekalainen draft recommendations, and year after year, the man just seemed to deliver. When he was hired as the assistant general manger and head of amateur scouting in St. Louis in 2002, it was a new challenge and situation, but Kekalainen did not stray from what made him successful in Ottawa.

Now the general manager and a key member of the Blue Jackets hockey operations department -- a "very important brick," as John Davidson called him -- Kekalainen has the resume to build on what's he has done before and is faced with a similar scenario right off the bat: the Blue Jackets own three first-round picks in this year's NHL draft, as did the Blues in 2007.

“When I see the three first-round picks, my eyes light up," Kekalainen said. "It’s a great opportunity for the franchise. It’s a real opportunity to start building; I’ve seen most of the top European prospects and I’ll have some work ahead of me to get to know the top North American prospects, but I’m confident that we’ve got a scouting staff in place that have done their work.

"I’ve already gotten familiar with their reports and lists, and I’m going to start studying them as soon as we hang up. I’m everyone in the organization knew the importance of the draft even before I got here.”

When Davidson began to strongly consider a change at the general manager's position in Columbus, he put together a short list of candidates but only gave serious consideration to one man (the one he hired).

Kekalainen has been there before, gotten the job done and built rich talent pipelines in two different NHL organizations, and possesses the requisite skill sets to get the Blue Jackets headed in the right direction -- which happened to be exactly what Davidson was looking for.

"He’s a very smart guy and a very worldly person," Davidson said. "I think, knowing he wanted to come over (to North America) and knowing our drafting situation and knowing we want move forward, sometimes you have to make changes and it’s not at the fault of the other person.

"You try to look at the whole picture, with everything you want in a general manager and you obviously look at their strengths. We feel here that with how important the draft is, especially with a deep draft and this one is a deep draft. He'll become a major voice for the upcoming draft. It’s part of it, and important part of it, but it’s not the only part of it."

Since coming aboard in Columbus four months ago, Davidson's message has been consistent: the Blue Jackets have to treat the annual NHL draft as its most crucial and important method for acquiring talent, and he said that over some lengthy monologues in recent weeks, he concluded that he wanted Kekalainen to be the person spearheading those efforts.

And while his new boss was effusive in his praise, Kekalainen broke down scouting very simply. He said it's not scientific but more about hard work and believing in the reearch done by the staff, but most importantly, getting "under the hood" of each player of interest.

“I think it’s easy to see the skill and the skating and all that stuff -- that’s like the cover of the book," Kekalainen said. "I always emphasize that we have to get a deeper and deeper understanding of what the players are all about; we have to be able to evaluate his character, we have to be able to evaluate his heart, we have to be able to evaluate his instincts for the game. It takes a lot of hard work and focus, and I think that’s what scouting’s all about.

"Nobody’s a super scout in my opinion…there are just real hard-working and detailed scouts, and then there are scouts that don’t do as good a job with that. That’s what I’m going to do here with our scouts and our staff. I can bring some of the insight I have with scouting and some of the stuff I’ve experienced into the process, but it’s not rocket science, it’s just hard work.”

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