Blue Jackets GM Kekalainen says team ‘has to be better’

Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno (71) evades Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber (6) in the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. The Blue Jackets won 5-2. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

After spending months pumping air into ballooning expectations, all it took was a tough couple days to send the Columbus Blue Jackets back to earth.

Three losses out of the gate won’t ultimately define an important season for the organization, but it’s put everyone on high alert. For example, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had been scheduled to fly to Finland next week for World Cup meetings and to participate in Sami Kapanen’s retirement ceremony, but the trip is currently on hold.

“It’s all dependent on how things go here,” Kekalainen said in an interview. “We’ll see if I’ll make that trip or not.”

Clearly, the slow start isn’t being taken lightly. With the Ottawa Senators in town for Wednesday Night Hockey (Sportsnet One, 7 p.m. ET), Columbus is looking for a win that would restore some order.

“It’s another opportunity for everybody to prove themselves and prove to everybody around the league that we are as good a team as the expectations are talking about,” said Kekalainen. “Again, talk’s cheap, and we’ve got to do it.”

Over 180 minutes of hockey so far they’ve bounced between bad luck, bad goaltending and an altogether bad performance in Buffalo.

They’ve seen a summer’s worth of goodwill and excitement disappear in the process.

While it may seem premature to sound alarm bells just one week into the regular season, executives are extremely cognizant of how close the NHL is these days. A team — and perhaps, teams, plural — will miss the playoffs by one or two points come the spring.

That simply isn’t an option for the Blue Jackets, who are demanding more of themselves than ever before.

“That’s part of trying to become good and an elite team and an elite athlete,” said Kekalainen. “The expectations rise as you get towards the top and if you can’t handle it, then you don’t belong to the top. That’s the way it works.”

Many labelled the Blue Jackets as a team to watch this season. Not only were they a favourite of prognosticators, Sabres rookie Jack Eichel wore a microphone during last month’s NHLPA rookie showcase and was recorded saying Columbus would be “unreal.”

All of the optimism and hype seemed justified.

Were it not for an unfathomable rash of injuries last season the team probably would have qualified for a second straight playoff appearance. Columbus finished the year on a 12-0-1 run — establishing a new franchise-best unbeaten streak — and then landed 22-year-old winger Brandon Saad from Chicago in a blockbuster trade over the summer. The Blue Jackets even cruised through the exhibition schedule with a couple lopsided victories.

Nothing has gone to plan since.

They allowed three goals inside the final three minutes to drop their home opener to the New York Rangers last Friday before digging a big hole at Madison Square Garden 24 hours later and losing the return game. In Buffalo on Monday, they managed just 24 shots against Sabres backup Chad Johnson and fell to 0-3-0.

Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch cleverly summed up the wayward start by writing: “The last time Columbus sailed so horribly off-course at the start of a voyage was in 1492.”

Kekalainen didn’t mince words either.

“I just didn’t like our effort, didn’t like our focus,” he said. “I didn’t like our execution in the third game. I think we played against one of the top teams in the league, the Rangers, two hard games. And sure it was a hard schedule, but it’s a hard schedule for everybody else too.

“There’s no excuse for how we played in Buffalo. We just have to be better. It’s that simple.”

The Blue Jackets have been notoriously slow out of the gate in recent seasons, but at least they have some company in the Metropolitan Division with Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Carolina all winless as well.

There’s also a game with the scuffling Toronto Maple Leafs looming on Friday, so opportunity is nigh. (Injured forwards David Clarkson and Alexander Wennberg are expected to return for that one.)

Essentially, hope can be restored quickly.

“I still feel good about our team,” said Kekalainen. “It hasn’t changed. I’ve seen what this team’s capable of doing and I have full confidence in our group. We’ve just got to execute that on the ice.”

The GM declined to identify the positives he’s observed through three games — “I don’t want to get into individual praise right now” — but seeing Saad and Ryan Johansen, who is coming off a career-best 71 points, both find the scoresheet has to be encouraging.

You have to figure it’s only a matter of time before goalie Sergei Bobrovsky regains his Vezina Trophy-winning form as well.

With tensions already high at Nationwide Arena, it would be best for everyone if the turnaround started with a win over the 2-1-0 Senators on Wednesday night.

“The good thing about sports, and pro sports in particular, is you’ve got another chance to prove yourself fairly quickly after you have a bad one,” said Kekalainen.

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