The NHL’s most patriotic (American) brand has gone European. The Columbus Blue Jackets, named for Ohio’s rich Civil War history, recently announced the hiring of Finish general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen. Kekäläinen didn’t waste any time bidding farewell to Jokerit, the Finish Elite squad he recently turned around on and off the ice, to become the league’s first ever European-born GM. Considering the Jackets’ wealth of youth and draft picks it was an easy decision and a move Jokerit had been anticipating. The opportunity is great and the challenge daunting, but, if successful, Jarmo can tack on another awe-inspiring NHL first to his résumé: making the Blue Jackets to relevant.
Luck has rarely been on the their side since the Blue Jackets inception in 2000/01. With no playoffs wins and countless draft busts to their credit, it’s shocking that Mr. Kekäläinen is only the third GM in the troubled team’s history. Unlike his predecessors, Jarmo won’t enjoy a long honeymoon. Not under team president John Davidson’s watch. How Kekäläinen manages the team in his first next six months will determine the fate of the franchise for a decade or more.
Thanks to trades with Los Angeles and the Rangers, Columbus holds three first round selections in June’s NHL entry draft. Factor in a likely top five pick at the top of round two and the Jackets are looking at four picks in the top 35. That’s a potential goldmine in a deep draft like this one, but Columbus has a history of missing on picks. Kekäläinen’s track record as an assistant GM with Ottawa and St. Louis speaks for itself. With so much on the line this summer, Kekäläinen can’t afford to miss. The selections courtesy of New York and L.A. will forever be compared to Vorachek, Carter, and Nash.
In addition to the draft, Kekäläinen must carefully manage an interesting crop of prospects. The farm system is loaded with talent, but the Jackets are notorious for mishandling their young players. The new management must find a way to get more out of underachievers Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Ryan Johansen. At the very least, they have to get these kids to stick at the NHL level consistently. Oshawa Generals captain Boone Jenner and 2012 second overall selection Ryan Murray may be the most talented players in the Columbus system. Their development and stabilizing the goaltending position are critical to turning the franchise around sooner than later.
The 2012 offseason will be one Columbus fans won’t soon forget. Whether it’s another disaster or the franchise facelift fans have been waiting for is entirely up to Jarmo Kekäläinen. He’ll be asked to do more for this organization in his first five months on the job than Scott Howson accomplished in five years. Jacket backers have an exciting summer ahead of them. If Jarmo Kekäläinen is as capable as he looks on paper, the next winter might be even better. Heck, maybe the Jackets will still be in contention by the first snowfall.