Ever since Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen was named Scott Howson’s successor on Feb. 13, 2013, the franchise’s fortunes have dramatically changed and they have slowly earned respect around the NHL.
Kekalainen’s focal point, among his many duties as GM, and what was missing from the early Blue Jackets’ history, was strong drafting.
The Blue Jackets GM’s resume of strong drafting speaks for itself. With the Ottawa Senators as director of player personnel, he selected players like Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, and Ray Emery. With the St. Louis Blues as an assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting, he drafted players like Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie, Patrick Berglund, David Perron, and David Backes. Those players were picked at the top of the draft, but Kekalainen has proven with the Blue Jackets that gems can be found anywhere in the draft.
Whether he drafted these players to add value to future trades or to be impact players on the roster down the line, Kekalainen has found an interesting niche in the third round since taking over the reins in Columbus. Here are the rankings of his third-round selections by importance.
7. Blake Siebenaler
Not every pick works out for the team that drafted them, and the same can be said of Blake Siebenaler. A defenseman from the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, Siebenaler was selected in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (77th overall). The Blue Jackets didn’t offer him an entry-level contract as he didn’t take any steps forward in his two OHL seasons after his draft year.
Siebenaler played three seasons in the AHL for the Cleveland Monsters before he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 2019 conditional seventh-round pick (if he played ten games at the NHL level). He only played one game for the Penguins and that was with their AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Siebenaler is now playing with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. He had a stat line of 9 goals and 17 assists in 50 games before the unexpected pause of pro hockey due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
6. Keegan Kolesar
A player who has had more impact on the Blue Jackets’ roster than people realize is the 2015 pick (69th overall),
A few months later at the 2017 NHL Draft, without any picks in the first or second rounds, Kekalainen traded Kolesar to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a second-round pick (45th overall) where they selected bright young French prospect Alexandre Texier, who since has turned heads in Columbus ever since arriving from the Finnish Elite League.
Kolesar is now enjoying a pro hockey career with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, after splitting his first pro season in Chicago and with the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards in the 2017-18 season. This past season, Kolesar had three goals and 18 points in 33 games for the Wolves and suited up for his first NHL game with the Golden Knights this season in 3-0 loss to the Blue Jackets on Jan. 10.
5. Marcus Karlberg
Sometimes even a prospect is surprised to be drafted. (from ‘Blue Jackets’ Marcus Karlberg surprised by third-round pick,’ Columbus Dispatch, 06/26/2018) That can be said of 5-foot-8, 165-pound winger Marcus Karlberg who shocked to be taken in the third round (80th overall pick) in 2018. He thought he would go much later.
With his size, Karlberg has to be fearless to get to the dirty and high-traffic areas of the ice to be successful, and he was just that in his draft year scoring at or over a point-per-game pace in three of the four Swedish leagues that he played in; the exception was a two-game stint in Allsvenskan with Leksands IF, a step just below Sweden’s top league of the SHL.
He has continued to improve in Sweden and, given his small size, needs time to develop further mentally and physically to have an impact with the Blue Jackets in the future. Karlberg enjoyed 11 goals and 32 points in 27 games with Leksands IF J20 in SuperElit but struggled to find ice time and the same offensive impact in the SHL where he was scoreless in 13 games with Leksands IF.
4. Vitaly Abramov
With the 65th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets selected another small but dynamic scoring winger in Russian forward Vitaly Abramov. After years of being in Russian junior leagues, including one season in the MHL, Abramov chose to spend his draft year in the QMJHL with the Gatineau Olympiques and enjoyed a breakout season with 38 goals and 93 points in 63 games; he added 7 goals
In his second season in the Q, Abramov exploded again for an impressive 46 goals and 104 points in three more games than his first year. He received many awards for his season including the Jean Beliveau Trophy as the top regular-season scorer in the 2016-17 season, the Michel Briere Memorial Trophy as MVP of the QMJHL and was named to the First All-Star Team. Halfway through his MVP season, Abramov earned a three-year, entry-level contract from the Blue Jackets.
As Kekalainen was trying to load up on offensive talent at the trade deadline in the 2018-19 season, Abramov was included in the trade that brought star center Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators to Columbus. Abramov has since made his NHL debut with the Senators and scored his first NHL goal this season against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 10. Abramov spent this season mostly in the AHL with the Belleville Senators tallying 18 goals and 41 points in 51 games.
3. Daniil Tarasov
Before the 2017 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets made a huge trade to move on from Brandon Saad and bring in electrifying winger Artemi Panarin. The trade included Anton Forsberg, the goaltender who played a big part in the Lake Erie Monsters (the Blues Jackets’ AHL affiliate) winning the 2016 Calder Cup. After the trade, the team had to add another body to the pipeline and selected 6-foot-5, 185-pound goaltender Daniil Tarasov with the 86th overall pick in 2017.
Going into the draft, Tarasov was considered a talented but raw prospect who had suffered a lower-body injury that had caused him to miss all of the 2016-17 season, which didn’t make the decision to choose the Russian goaltender any clearer. Kekalainen stuck with his scouting staff even with the injury concerns and Tarasov rebounded in the 2017-18 season with Tolpar Ufa of the MHL with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage in 40 games.
After spending his 2018-19 season between the VHL and KHL, as well as playing in international competition, Tarasov signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets. He then chose to move to the Finnish Elite League to play for Assat with the promise of more starts. He finished his season in Assat with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .899 save percentage in 41 games.
Tarasov is seen as one of the many bright goaltending prospects in the Blue Jackets’ system and he will make the move to North America whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
2. Elvis Merzlikins
Even before being drafted by the Blue Jackets with the 76th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Elvis Merzlikins was a star and an icon in Latvia, not just
Goaltenders, more than any other position, need a chance to develop and play as much as they can. After Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky signed a four-year contract extension, Merzlikins took the opportunity to re-sign in HC Lugano of the NLA and both contracts ended after the 2018-19 season. When Bobrovsky signed his lucrative deal with the Florida Panthers, Merzlikins took the opportunity to sign with the Blue Jackets and compete for the job with Joonas Korpisalo, giving the roster two goaltenders who could be their number one option.
Merzlikins struggled to start the 2019-20 season with a 0-4-3 record, including a 7-2 shellacking by the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, after Korpisalo suffered an injury in a 3-2 shootout loss courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks, Merzlikins went on a run for the ages. After his first NHL win on New Year’s Eve against Bobrovsky and the Panthers, he recorded five shutouts in eight games.
The goaltending remains a strong point for the Blue Jackets and Merzlikins, as well as Tarasov and Korpisalo, which are big
1. Oliver Bjorkstrand
The 2013 NHL Draft was a huge one for the Blue Jackets and new general manager Kekalainen. Even if there were a lot of misses in the first and other rounds, no one can deny the impact of selecting a small, but skilled sharpshooting Danish forward in
After arriving overseas from Denmark, Bjorkstrand acclimated himself to North American hockey by playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL and proceeded to score 31 goals and 63 points in 65 games in his draft year. However, like all undersized players, many wondered if he could reach the next level. Bjorkstrand continued to dominate the WHL with 50 goals and 109 points in the 2013-14 season. He tallied 63 goals and 118 points in the 2014-15 season and earned many awards in a historic season.
Bjorkstrand then moved on to his first pro season, split between the Blue Jackets and the Lake Erie Monsters in the 2015-16 season when he won the Calder Cup and the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the AHL Playoffs with a stat line of 10 goals and 16 points in 17 games. He also had six game-winning goals, including the championship winner.
In Bjorkstrand’s NHL career, he has tallied 65 goals and 133 points in 246 games including a breakout campaign in the 2019-20 season with 21 goals in 49 games. If the NHL season resumes this summer with the 24-team playoff format, look for Bjorkstrand to be the focal point of the Blue Jackets’ offense.
Kekalainen’s Stellar Track Record
There is something to be said about drafting and developing players within an organization, but when a team has accumulated a lot of value through the draft, it can lead to creative ways to improve a roster. For instance, hitting on a draft pick then trading that potential talent for even more draft picks or future talent.
When you do your job as effectively as Kekalainen has over the last few years, any draft pick could be a hit or a small step toward acquiring a difference-maker or a serviceable role player.
Kekalainen’s track record in the third round as GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets shows his dedication to scouting and also recognizing how creative you can be to acquire someone with similar or potentially more value down the line.