Blue Jackets’ Jarmo Kekalainen Finding Success Later in Drafts

On Feb. 13, 2013, the Columbus Blue Jackets announced Jarmo Kekalainen as their third general manager in franchise history. 

Since taking over the role, he and his drafting team have been responsible for a total of seven drafts, all of which have had their expected ups and downs. Aside from the obvious first-round selections, his ability to seek hidden gems throughout the third-to-seventh rounds has been an area worth praising.

Related: 5 Forgotten Picks of the 2005 NHL Draft

Thanks to stellar scouting, Kekalainen and company have managed to steal a number of players from under the nose of the rest of the league. Here are some of his more coveted late-round draft picks since his arrival.

2013 – First Kick At The Can

3rd round – 89th overall – Oliver Bjorkstrand

The 2013 entry draft marked Kekalainen’s first opportunity taking the podium as the new GM of the Blue Jackets. With the exception of taking Alexander Wennberg with their first pick, the first two rounds were a slight disappointment. However, as the draft settled into the third, they managed to hit their first home run.

With the 89th pick, the Blue Jackets would select Oliver Bjorkstrand, a skilled forward from the Portland Winterhawks. The Danish winger was fresh off an impressive rookie season, posting 63 points in 65 games. This included a run to the Memorial Cup that saw him and the Winterhawks fall just one win away from taking home the ultimate prize. He would go on to enjoy a very nice career in the Western League, compiling 290 points through 193 games, good for a career total of 1.50 points-per-game. 

Oliver Bjorkstrand Columbus Blue Jackets
Oliver Bjorkstrand is earning his rights as a third-round steal (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the 2015-2016 season, three years after being selected, he would transition his game to the pro-level with the Jackets affiliated AHL squad. He played an integral role in his rookie season, leading them to their first Calder Cup championship in team history.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Bjorkstrand Finally Bringing His Best Game

Today, he has evolved into one of the club’s heart-and-soul players. His numbers at the NHL level are by no means jaw-dropping, with 133 in 246 games. However, his game continues to grow to new lengths with each season. The 24-year-old has a knack for finding the net with his elusive shot and sports very soft hands. While he is not the biggest player on the ice, his compete level is bar-none and holds the capability to make players around him better. You can expect him to play a very heavy role in this team’s future.

2014 – Signs of A Future Number One

3rd round – 76th overall – Elvis Merzlikins

The 2014 draft was arguably the GM’s most disappointing to date. Luckily, he was able to salvage the weekend with yet another third-round gem. With the 76th pick, the Jackets selected a Latvian netminder by the name of Elvis Merzlikins.

Elvis had been showcasing his talents in Switzerland, surging through the ranks for the HC Lugano system. He would remain overseas for the next five seasons, dominating the top league and earning his status as one of the sports top goaltending prospects.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Oct. 2019, the now 25-year-old would make his anticipated transition to the NHL. With the loss of former number one, Sergei Bobrovsky, Merzlikins would skip the minor league and fast-track straight to the Jackets starting goalie rotation. Despite a very rocky start, the Latvian netminder settled in shortly after Christmas and took the league by storm. From January to February, he would go on an incredible run of 11-5-4, which included five shutouts in 10 matches. It’s no secret that Elvis is in the plans for the future and has the potential to be the team’s unanimous starter going forward.

2015 – Back To Back Gems

6th Round – 159th overall – Vladislav Gavrikov

Kekalainen bounced back in 2015 with a solid bundle of picks. This draft was stockpiled with names such as Zach Werenski, Gabriel Carlsson and Kevin Stendlund, all of which are currently on the roster in 2020. After a few mid-draft misses, they would finish strong with two surprise defenders. 

First came Vladislav Gavrikov, a heavy-set Russian rearguard. He spent the last four seasons in the KHL where he chipped in for 48 points in 206 games with both St.Petersburg and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He made his Columbus debut earlier this season and to the surprise of many, has been one of the more consistent players on their blue line.

Vladislav Gavrikov Columbus Blue Jackets
Vladislav Gavrikov of the Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

While his ability to shut down offenders is his top-highlighted attribute, the 24-year-old has shown some unexpected offensive flair, putting up 18 points in 69 matches. He does not make many mistakes and plays a very sound two-way game. His 6-foot-3 frame is a much-welcomed addition to the Jackets backend and will surely pay off in spades come playoff time.

7th round – 189th overall – Markus Nutivaara

With their seventh and final pick, the Jackets were happy to select Markus Nutivaara, another solid two-way defender hailing from Finland. 

After spending just one year with Karpat in Finland’s top league, Nutivaara would jump over to the NHL and instantly fill a role on their bottom-four pairing. Much like Gavrikov, Nutivaara was not known for his offensive capabilities but still managed to find the scoresheet from time to time. He may not “wow” you with his play, but has shown consistent play at both ends of the ice. He should continue to be serviceable at the NHL level for years to come, proving to be a very successful seventh-round player.

2016 – Solid Depth

7th round – 185th overall – Calvin Thurkauf

With their final pick of the 2017 draft, the Blue Jackets would select a serviceable depth centreman from Switzerland, Calvin Thurkauf. He was a solid player in the Western Hockey League, posting 115 points in 121 games with the Kelowna Rockets. He recently wrapped up his third full season with AHL affiliates, Cleveland Monsters and has been developing smoothly.

Calvin Thurkauf, is a skilled forward who will bring solid depth for years to come. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

He managed a career-best 26 points this season while skating on the team’s top-six. With a plethora of injuries on the Blue Jackets, the Swiss-born pivot enjoyed a brief cup of coffee in the NHL where he took part in three games. Although he went pointless, the promotion is a good indicator as to where his game is and his current status in the organization.

While a bottom-six role is likely his cap, he should provide the team with sound depth for future seasons.

2017 – The Golden Draft

4th round – 117th overall – Emil Bemstrom

The 2017 entry-draft proved to be the best that Jarmo Kekalainen has on his resume. With seven picks in total, they managed to address decent offensive capabilities, top-notch goaltending, and a solid depth defender. With that being said, let’s take a look at the fourth round where the Blue Jackets selected Emil Bemstrom, a pure goal-scorer out of Sweden.

Emil Bemstrom Blue Jackets
Emil Bemstrom shows potential to be an elite goal-scorer at the NHL level (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since being selected, The 21-year-old has solidified himself as one of the more consistent point producers overseas. Last season he earned a permanent spot in the SHL where he led his team in goals with 23 and finished with a total of 35 points.

Bemstrom made his NHL debut this season and has fluctuated in regards to consistency. His transition was destined to hit a few bumps, so his 20-point rookie point total should not be a worry. The 21-year-old sniper possesses an elite level shot and in time holds the potential to become a 30-goal scorer at the top level.

2018 – Under The Radar Goaltending

6th round – 173rd Overall – Veini Vehvilainen

Veini Vehvilainen is a Finnish backstop who hadn’t put up spectacular numbers overseas as a teenager, keeping him undrafted for many years. It wasn’t until 2018, after earning the SM-Liiga Goaltender of the year award, that the Blue Jackets took a chance on him. Much to the Jackets’ luck, Vehvilainen would go on to post yet another stellar season post-draft, taking home the trophy for a second consecutive season. The 23-year-old has shown fantastic development with age and is now considered a standout goaltender who should compete for an NHL job.

He made his transition to the America League this season, where he split his time between the pipes with the Cleveland Monsters. Do not let his mediocre 2.76 GAA and .901 fool you. His play has been far better than his numbers show and has even managed bumped a few goaltenders down the depth charts as a result. Depending on what happens with the Blue Jackets’ goaltending situation during the offseason, do not be shocked to see him earn a game very soon.

2019 – Quality Not Quantity

4th round – 144th overall – Dmitri Voronkov

Due to a trade deadline frenzy that kept Kekalainen very busy, the Blue Jackets were held to just three draft picks in 2019. Yet, still managed to draft smart, taking three players who all seem to be exceeding expectations this season.

Most noteworthy being Russian forward Dmitri Voronkov, a heavy centreman who can play both sides of the ice. At 19-years-old, he has enjoyed a successful rookie campaign in the KHL with 12 points on the year, including two points in four postseason matches.

He put his name on the map earlier this season when he made his first appearance in the World Junior Championships. Despite losing in the gold medal matchup, Voronkov was named player of the tournament for team Russia, finishing with seven points in seven games.

A Drafting Guru

Drafting good players is essential to any professional organization. After seven entry-drafts in the books, it is clear that Jarmo Kekalinen thrives on finding hidden gems throughout the deeper ends of the draft. This gives Columbus a much-needed advantage over many teams throughout the league.