Jarmo Kekalainen is likely not the first name that pops into people’s head when they think about a hockey general manager. He’s not a Stan Bowman or a Lou Lamoriello and the only other team he’s been a GM for is the Jokerit, who were then in the Finnish Elite League. With some key moves, however, Kekalainen has helped the Blue Jackets go from bottom of the league to almost winning the President’s Trophy in the 2016-2017 season. With the moves he’s been making, it’s no wonder why fans these days seem to be singing his praises more often than not.
Kekalainen’s Moves in the 2016 Off-season
After what most fans would call a disappointing season in the 2015-16 campaign, Kekalainen made small moves to better the team. First, there was the cutting of Fedor Tyutin and Jared Boll. During Tyutin’s last season with the Blue Jackets, he had a miserable Corsi for percentage of 45.7%. During his eight-year tenure with the Blue Jackets, his CF% was exactly 50. As the 2015-16 season dragged along, it became clear to fans and management alike that his age began to take its toll on all elements of his play.
Jared Boll had played for the Blue Jackets since he was drafted in 2005, not knowing any other team for over ten years. As time passed, he more than accepted his role as an enforcer, not afraid to drop the gloves with anyone. During the 2015-16 season he played 30 games and had a Corsi for percentage of 33.7%. After nine seasons with the Blue Jackets, his career Corsi for was a mediocre 46.0%.
In his biggest move of 2016, he re-signed Seth Jones to a six-year contract.
The Hiring of Brad Shaw
In one of the more under-the-radar moves of the off-season, Kekalainen also saw to the signing of Brad Shaw as the Jackets’ defensive coach. After working as the St. Louis Blues defensive coach for over ten years, Shaw was credited with creating one of the best defensive corps in the league and brought that expertise to their powerplay as well. In the 2015-16, Shaw’s last season with the Blues, they had the third best penalty kill in the league. After just one season with the Blue Jackets, Shaw helped bring their penalty kill from 19th in the league (81%) to 9th (82.5%).
Contracts and Drafting
Working for a smaller market team may work Kekalainen’s favor, as the Columbus media offers far less pressure than would be felt by the likes of Bowman, Lamoriello or Marc Bergevin. For the most part he has been fair in his contract signings, with the only notable mishandling coming in the form of Brandon Dubinsky.
Among hockey media and fans alike, there was much praise for Kekalainen when he signed Seth Jones to a six-year contract with an average annual value of $5.4 million. The young defenseman is just going to keep getting better as time goes on, especially with Zach Werenski as his first-pairing partner.
Kekalainen’s drafting has come under scrutiny recently with the drafting of Pierre-Luc Dubois, but his work overall in this category has been nothing short of impressive so far. He managed to find Oliver Bjorkstrand in the third round, who has a chance to become a top-six player on the team. Critics said he drafted the third-best defenseman in the draft in Zach Werenski, who then set Columbus Blue Jackets rookie scoring records and was nominated for the Calder Trophy. He capped off the draft by finding solid third pairing defenseman Markus Nutivaara in the seventh round.
Then again, none of his success should come at a surprise since his drafting while with the St. Louis Blues was excellent as well.
Before the 2016 trade deadline, in a move that surprised most fans, Dalton Prout found himseld traded to the New Jersey Devils in a one-for-one swap for Kyle Quincey. Quincey was no standout during his 22 games (including two playoff appearances), collecting just four points. The most important part was that on July 1, Quincey became a UFA while Prout still has one year left on his contract.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 1, 2017
Kekalainen’s Moves in the 2017 Off-season
The Blue Jackets set team records and even a league record in the 2016-17 season, but none of that satisfied Kekalainen – nor should it satisfy fans. In this off-season he bought out another older player in Scott Hartnell. Hartnell’s number were better than both Tyutin’s and Boll’s, but with an influx of youth making a push, something had to give. This also reinforces his idea that their window is opening, rather than closing. He has been quoted as saying, “We feel like our window is just starting to crack open. We’re a young team. We don’t see any reason to try and go crazy. We don’t want to be kicking ourselves two or three years from now.”
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) May 28, 2017
Then on June 23 Kekalainen traded Brandon Saad, Anton Forsberg, and a fifth-round pick in 2018 to the Chicago Blackhawks for Artemi Panarin, Tyler Motte, and a sixth-round pick in 2017. The most important pieces, of course, proved to be Brandon Saad and Artemi Panarin. The addition of Panarin provides a “sniper in the key moment” just like Kekalainen wanted. With Alexander Wennberg as his center, who got 46 assists last year and was signed to a six-year contract in early September, fans are expecting great things from the 2016 Calder Trophy winner.
For once, the Columbus Blue Jackets have a capable General Manager overseeing the team. A General Manager who has proved time and time again that he is trying to set this team up for success.