The 2016-17 Blue Jackets season is upon us.
Who better to hear from than the GM himself? Jarmo Kekalainen discusses how he constructed the roster, how the team's rookies impressed during training camp, and how he's gone about reconstructing the defense.
CBJ.com: What do you like about your team and how things shook out heading into opening night?
JK: First, I think it's the transformation of our defense to being more mobile and fast. We're in a position to be better getting out of our own zone and supporting our offense, and having a quick transition game. I think that's the biggest thing. A couple of those guys are still young, so we have to be patient with them as they get their feet wet in the NHL, but they're really promising. They will be very good NHL players and it's only a matter of time before they make an impact on our team.
CBJ.com: Your defense was an area of concern last year, and while you could see that from your chair, it's difficult to fix during the season. How did you approach it going into the summer?
JK: You're right in that it's almost impossible to acquire that type of player, a top-four defenseman, during the season. That's why we've talked about drafting and developing - there's no way around it. No one is going to hand out players that have the potential to be impact defensemen. That takes a major trade, a position-for-position and need-for-need trade like we made with Nashville for Seth Jones, but those don't happen very often. If you don't do that, you have to draft and wait until the player is ready like we did with Zach Werenski. Sometimes it can take a year and sometimes it can take more. Draft and development is at least a five-year process; it could take longer than that before they develop into a real impact player. Anybody can have average players and get them off waivers, but to have impact players, you really need to draft well, develop well, and when the time is right, you bring them in when they show you they're ready.
CBJ.com: What did you think of training camp?
JK: I thought it was really hard. I thought it was competitive and extremely hard-working. We knew it would be challenging, and Torts set it up so that everyone knew what to expect. They went through a lot, and a big part of the camp was mental hurdles that guys had to get through. I think that part was obviously a big goal of Torts' to get the players mentally ready and prepared to go through a long season.
CBJ.com: Did you see what you needed to see from your younger players, particularly later in camp as the roster started to get slimmer?
JK: In the beginning, it was a tough time to evaluate players because so many of them were exhausted from the skating and the testing, but we knew going into camp that it could be that way. Now there's another level we need to get to when the regular season starts. I think we saw what Torts had planned and why he set it up the way he did; now, we'll wait and see, and hopefully they respond the right way.
CBJ.com: Markus Nutivaara and Lukas Sedlak may be seen as surprises to make the opening night roster. What did you see from them - not just in this camp, but going back to last season in how they prepared for camp?
JK: Sedlak's audition started a lot earlier when he played a big role for our Calder Cup-winning team in Cleveland. He was great in the playoffs. His performance there got us thinking (back in the spring) that he had a good chance of making our team, and he earned it in camp. He did not disappoint and that's why he's still there, and we'll see where it takes him. With Nutivaara being a guy who played in Europe last year, you always have to see how he adjusts to the smaller rink and different environment in North America, but he's done a good job with it. There's no hesitation in his game. He's been very confident through camp and played the way that we want to play, where he's joining the rush and unafraid of making mistakes. I knew and our scouting staff knew what he's capable of; he won a championship with Karpat in the Finnish league, he was on the men's national team for Finland, and would've played in the World Championship had he not gotten hurt. We know he's a guy on a higher level than a lot of other kids, and he's also a bit of a late bloomer at 22 years old.
CBJ.com: With those two players in particular, it speaks to an important part of drafting and development, does it not? One (Sedlak) is a sixth-round pick and the other (Nutivaara) was a seventh-rounder.
JK: And you look at what year Sedlak was drafted, in 2011, and five years later, now he gets his chance to make an impact on the team. Sometimes it takes a while, but you have to invest in that process and we certainly do.