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Kekalainen faces new challenge with Jokerit

by Bill Meltzer
Much has changed in Finnish hockey in the 12 seasons since Jarmo Kekalainen assembled a championship team as the general manager of HIFK Helsinki. In the ensuring years, the economics of Finnish hockey have changed, and even the highest-profile SM-Liiga teams such as Jokerit Helsinki, HIFK and Karpat Oulu have de-emphasized high-profile imports and European league veteran players in favor of cheaper, almost exclusively Finnish talent.

In the meantime, Kekalainen carved a reputation for having one of the hockey world's sharpest eyes for talent during an eight-year stint as the director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager of the St. Louis Blues. The 44-year-old Kekalainen, who recently stepped down from his post in St. Louis to accept the general manager position with Jokerit Helsinki, will have to call on those skills to improve the fortunes of a Jokerit club that finished 10th last season and has failed to advance behind the quarterfinals in the last two playoffs.

No one is more aware than Kekalainen that a different approach to success will be necessary if Jokerit is return to its former status as one of the top teams in Europe. It no longer is feasible to follow the same blueprint Jokerit and HIFK used to win titles in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The title-winning 1997-98 HIFK squad largely was comprised of imported North American and veteran European talent, as well as top-end young Finnish players recruited away from smaller-market clubs, especially KalPa Kuopio.

Widely considered one of the best SM-Liiga teams ever assembled, the victorious IFK squad included a host of future and former NHL players. The team included the likes of goaltender Tim Thomas, Brian Rafalski, Olli Jokinen (recruited away from KalPa), Kimmo Timonen (via KalPa), Jarno Kultanen (KalPa), Czech forward Jan Caloun, Miika Elomo (returning to Europe from the American Hockey League), Swedish forward Johan Davidsson, veteran Christian Ruuttu, Jarkko Ruutu, Marko Tuomainen and former NHL defenseman Bob Halkidis. Nowadays, only teams in the KHL are able to ice comparable or superior rosters.

Not surprisingly, in discussing his plans for Jokerit, Kekalainen heavily emphasized the need to revitalize its junior development program through first-rate coaching and to identify rising young talents who are self-motivated to succeed. That is consistent with the scouting and drafting philosophy he followed in St. Louis.

"I think the current thinking is a bit upside-down," he recently told "If players are not taught to play properly early on, it's pointless to start to teach them later. It's this thinking that I want to change. That's why we have to be an organization that's willing to invest and hire people who will develop us the players we need in the league. Much of the coaching in junior hockey is voluntary, but there needs to be professionalism and consistency in the approach. … If a guy comes up through the system, it's a good thing. If you get two, it's better."

The process Kekalainen describes will take several years to fully implement and several years beyond that to reap dividends at the SM-Liiga level. In the more immediate future, Kekalainen wants to establish a team that is prepared to compete hard on a night-in and night-out basis. That was not always the case last season.

Kekalainen, who stayed on with the Blues long enough to oversee the 2010 Entry Draft, has not yet made the first steps toward significantly reshaping his new club. Officially, he begins work with Jokerit on Aug. 15, but he's already begun the process of getting back up to speed with the players on the club and around the league.

"I've got to re-learn the Finnish league," he said. "I do not have time to see all the players in the league. When it comes to procuring talent, it's important that I get to see players who are candidates to be signed so that I can make sure I'm on the same page as the talent coordinator. Sometimes it only takes one time to watch the player, sometimes it can take up to five times, but the important thing is to see what (the coordinator) sees."

Last season, Jokerit iced a team that, on paper, should have been more than good enough to capture a playoff spot. Instead, the club underachieved for most of the season, captured the final postseason spot and promptly lost in the first-round miniseries. The club included the likes of mid-season acquisition Michael Nylander, and former NHL players Alex Brooks, Juha Lind, Jani Rita, Jukka Hentunen, Esa Pirnes, Swedish forward Fredrik Bremberg, Antti-Jussi Niemi and Tom Koivisto, as well as former minor leaguers Semir Ben-Amor and Janne Hauhtonen.

As part of the club's recommitment to youth, highly regarded youngsters such as Teemu Pulkkinen (the Detroit Red Wings' fourth-round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft) should receive an increased role this season. Other well-regarded young players on the preseason roster include Carolina Hurricanes prospect Tommi Kivisto, fellow promising young defenseman Jere Olander and 19-year-old Imari Pitkanen.

When last season ended, the 36-year-old Lind retired. Bremberg will return to Sweden to play for HV71 while Brooks is a free agent. Rita is a roster holdover, as are Hentunen, Pirnes, Niemi and Ben-Amor. Additional experience and leadership will come from former NHL defenseman Ossi Vaananen. Nylander, who came to Jokerit on loan from the Washington Capitals, recently was waived by Washington.

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