Blue Jackets Kekalainen Helping Change Culture In Columbus

The Columbus Blue Jackets are in unchartered territory. Never before in their franchise history have the Blue Jackets had three consecutive winning seasons or back-to-back 40-win seasons. They now have both going for them. They have this after posting their best-winning percentage (.573) in franchise history in 2012-2013.

Their success started when Jarmo Kekalainen became the team’s third general manager.

The Blue Jackets hired Kekalainen on February 13, 2013 after they fired previous GM Scott Howson the day before. Given the wealth of experience Kekalainen brought, it’s no surprise the Blue Jackets are in the midst of playing their most successful hockey.

Kekalainen has served as both a director of player personnel and director of amateur scouting within his 20 years of front-office experience. He also held various general manager positions, including two stints in the Finnish Elite League as general manager. Before joining the Blue Jackets, Kekalainen spent five years with the St. Louis Blues as an assistant general manager. He joined the Blues in 2002 as their director of amateur scouting.

The list of players that Kekalainen has drafted is impressive. From 1995-2002, Kekalainen served various roles, including director of player personnel, with the Ottawa Senators. Players that he drafted in that time include Marian Hossa, Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, and Ray Emery.

Kekalainen continued his stellar drafting with the Blues, by drafting the likes of T.J Oshie, David Backes, David Perron, and Alex Pietrangelo. Kekalainen has a real eye for talent. He is exactly what the Blue Jackets needed.

While the Senators and Blues experienced excellent drafts, the Blue Jackets missed out on draft day opportunities. Top draft picks like Gilbert Brule and Nikita Filatov didn’t pan out. This set the team back years.

Enter Kekalainen. In his first draft with the Blue Jackets, he had three first-round picks at his disposal. He turned those into Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, and Marko Dano. The following season, Sonny Milano was their first-round selection. This season, the Blue Jackets thanks to trades had two selections. They were Zachary Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson. To have six first-round picks in three years is impressive. But that’s just the beginning for Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets.

In 2013, the Blue Jackets held the 44th overall pick. They completed a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In exchange for the 44th pick, the Blue Jackets received the 50th pick and the 89th pick. The Penguins took goalie Tristan Jarry. The Blue Jackets took defenseman Dillon Heatherington with the 50th pick. With the 89th pick, Columbus selected perhaps one of the steals of that draft, Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Kekalainen’s impact extends beyond the draft. He isn’t afraid to make a major move if one is available. It took giving up Dano, Artem Anisimov and two other pieces, but the Blue Jackets got their man in return in Brandon Saad. Now the Blue Jackets have one of the best forward groups in the NHL.

Kekalainen has been on the job for about two and a half years now. In that time, the perception of the Blue Jackets has dramatically changed. They are no longer looked at as a laughing-stock. They are now a potential dark horse to make a run at a Stanley Cup. The outlook beyond that is even more promising.

Columbus is now a desired destination. Players now want to come here because of the new culture that Kekalainen has helped establish. Instead of wondering where they will draft, the Blue Jackets can focus on the postseason and what it will take to find success there.

The culture around Nationwide Arena has never been better in Blue Jackets franchise history. (Natalie Lutz/Flickr)

The job Kekalainen has done isn’t getting enough attention. His patient approach and selective aggressiveness has the Blue Jackets positioned for annual success. If there was an award for general manager of the last three years, Kekalainen wins hands down.

The way he has handled difficult situations is admirable. The Nathan Horton and Mike Reilly situations were tough to deal with for different reasons. Kekalainen acquired David Clarkson, an able body, to replace Horton.

He then addressed the loss of Reilly by focusing on defense in this past draft. Although both Werenski and Carlsson aren’t expected to play for the Blue Jackets this season, Kekalainen addressed a glaring need. He made the best of a bad situation.

This is how you win. Kekalainen’s ability to spot talent coupled with his management skills make him one of the best general managers in the game today. He is a major reason that Columbus is relevant today. The culture of hockey in Columbus has never been stronger than it is today. Kekalainen is the architect behind the rise of the Blue Jackets.