Jarmo Kekalainen doesn’t always make the exciting choice. On the day his Columbus Blue Jackets were finally set to learn who their second-round opponent would be after nearly a week off, Kekalainen was meeting up with his management group to watch some hockey. The object of their attention, though, was not Game 7 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, which would determine whether they flew north or east the next day. Rather, Kekalainen and his crew gathered in the late afternoon to make the two-hour drive to Cleveland to watch the Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Monsters, try to close out their first-round series against a Syracuse Crunch squad whose parent club — wouldn’t you know it? — is the very same record-chasing Tampa Bay Lighting team Columbus dispatched in four straight games.
Winding his vehicle toward the designated meetup spot, Kekalainen acknowledged that watching the Leafs and Bruins would be the juicier viewing option. “But for my job’s sake, I think that I [have] to watch our farm team play,” he said over the occasional click of his turn signal. “We’ve got some good prospects there that, who knows, might even be able to help us this spring.”
The Jackets have already seen one promotion work out well in the form of 19-year-old Alexandre Texier’s contributions this April. And given how wide open these playoffs are after Columbus helped turn the 2019 post-season into a giant jump ball by knocking off a 128-point boogeyman in Round 1, any small addition may tip the balance. That said, if this club that’s carving out new ground for the franchise with each passing game manages to take it all the way, the toasts will be to the big-name straws who stir the drink and the general manager who had the fortitude and vision to put all the ingredients together.
Kekalainen’s exhilarating call to bolster a team featuring two massive flight risks was made in lockstep with his trusted lieutenants and guided by what they’d all seen in recent years from their team. The message it sent was about as subtle as an explosion from that cannon they spark at Nationwide Arena every time Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene or any other Blue Jacket hits the back of the net, and the reverberations invigorated a dressing room and entire region. The fully invested Jackets are led by a man who has run both the Boston and New York City marathons and has a long history of blazing his own trail. And if Columbus does see a parade this spring, it will be the culmination of a plan that predates the trade deadline by several decades.
Street smart” is one of those old-school terms likely to be derided by the quantifiables-only crowd. It has a clear meaning to Larry Pleau, though, and when Kekalainen worked under him in St. Louis, Pleau — a GM-turned-senior advisor with the Blues — saw a guy with an intellect that functioned on a couple different levels. “There’s a lot of people who are book smart, but they’re not street smart,” he says. “Jarmo has a good piece of both.”
Surely it was a combination of intuition and hard evidence that drove Kekalainen to act in the brassy fashion he did this year when, from the outside, it was easy to envision another entry in a long line of unsatisfying outcomes. In 2017, Columbus made the playoffs for just the third time in 16 total attempts, and was still in search of the organization’s first series victory. They were bounced by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to win their second-straight Stanley Cup. Nobody associated the Washington Capitals with winning at the start of last spring. Then Alex Ovechkin and Co. destroyed a nearly 50 year-long dubious conversation around their franchise with a championship run. The Caps’ charge, of course, began with a six-game triumph over the Jackets.
That meant Columbus arrived at training camp last September with a group that had averaged 102 points the previous two campaigns and had seen its balloon burst by the eventual Cup champ in both. When your entire existence is comprised of losing, though, who you’re losing to is an inconsequential detail. And when you combine a sad history with small-market status, two big-time players signaling they’ll be heading out the door as free agents simply dovetails with the overarching, doom-and-gloom theme.
The news Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky would not be negotiating contract extensions during the season with unrestricted free agency on the horizon this summer ignited speculation that both could be — perhaps even had to be — traded before they breezed out the door. Internally, the take was much different.
Kekalainen has been on the job for five years now and he’s made some stellar swaps — like the one that landed Panarin from Chicago in the first place or the acquisition of defenceman Seth Jones from Nashville. The idea he and his staff would grab one of those footballs they love so much in Ohio and just punt on this season was something none of them could stomach, even as Bobrovsky’s uncharacteristically up-and-down play had the Jackets bobbing on the playoff bubble the entire year. “We said right from the start, we’re not going to trade Panarin for just draft picks,” Kekalainen says, adding he always believed Bobrovsky’s performance would even out. “It doesn’t make any sense for us, we’re just moving the window with our team into the future. This franchise has been doing that enough. We weren’t going to do that. We wanted to see what this team could do.
Still, sticking to your guns is one thing — blowing first-round powder to acquire high-end rentals at the deadline is quite another. Duchene was the signature add, but no matter what role they’ve wound up playing, trading for versatile winger Ryan Dzingel, hard-nosed defenceman Adam McQuaid and depth goalie Keith Kinkaid sent an all-in message the team ate up. Kekalainen’s phone was probably still smoking when his captain got in touch to pass on a message.
“I reached out to Jarmo to say thanks,” says Nick Foligno. “I was worried — not worried, I just felt like our team was good and if we added some pieces then we could be really great or at least give ourselves a chance. For him to understand that from the players’ perspective — especially the core group of guys who’ve been here for a while — it meant a lot to us. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to really try and go for it … That message he sent to everybody — without having to say much, just doing it — it motivated the group.”
Not that the results were immediate. Columbus held a playoff spot on Feb. 25, deadline day, but slipped outside the wild-card cutoff in the coming weeks. It took some time for Duchene to find chemistry with his new mates, but the results were breathtaking once he did.
During a late-March, must-have game versus a Montreal Canadiens team fighting for the same playoff spot, the winning goal served notice there might be something special in the works. On the play, the left-shooting Duchene held the puck high in the Habs’ zone, with his back to goalie Carey Price. As defenceman Victor Mete moved to cover him, Duchene shifted from first to fifth, spinning to his backhand and surging a few feet down the wall before flinging a dot-to-dot pass to Panarin. The Russian creamed a one-timer past Price, securing a victory that was part of the 7–0–1 run the Jackets closed out the season on to snag the final playoff berth in the East.
Even if it seemed like Columbus had made the playoffs only to lose to the eventual champion — in this case, Tampa Bay — for the third straight year, the actions of a GM who had the conviction to see the organizational plan to fruition had to be admired. “I’m sure his conversations with [president of hockey operations] John Davidson were right up front [in terms] of what he would like to do if he could pull it off,” says Pleau. “Everybody can see it was a bold move, but he knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
A strong sense of direction is something Kekalainen has long possessed and benefited from. As a hockey-playing teenager, he sought out North Americans who’d come to play pro in his hometown of Kuopio, Finland so he could practice English. One of them, a man named Rob Barnes, had a connection to Clarkson University coach Robert ‘Cap’ Raeder and Kekalainen wound up being one of the first Finns to play NCAA hockey in the mid-1980s. “One of the best decisions in my life,” says Kekalainen, who led Clarkson in scoring during his second and final season there.
Kekalainen’s playing career came to an end in the mid-’90s after time on both sides of the pond, including 55 NHL games with Boston and Ottawa. With a bachelor’s degree in management from Clarkson and a master’s earned in Finland, he was still wearing skates when players started asking him for business advice. By the fall after his retirement, Kekalainen had formed an agency with Bill Zito, the man who serves as Columbus’s assistant GM today. He had 40 clients — including some bound for terrific NHL careers like Kimmo Timonen and Sami Kapanen.
The 52-year-old Kekalainen jokes he made a poor financial decision pivoting to team management after a few years, but also lists that as another life-defining move. For proof, consider the fact he still gets chills thinking about the 1998 HIFK championship team he put together in Helsinki, a squad considered one of the all-timers in Finland’s Liiga.
Just as a couple North Americans on that outfit — goalie Tim Thomas and defenceman Brian Rafalski — went on to achieve great NHL success, Kekalainen began carving out a sparkling reputation as a scout with the Senators after he shifted focus back to the world’s top circuit. When Pleau hired him to be the Blues’ director of amateur scouting in 2002, the job interview was the first time the two really sat down for a proper chat. “He’s a confident person and he knew what he wanted to do,” says Pleau. “You knew he would be a general manager someday, but he wasn’t in any hurry. He felt he still had some unfinished business at the amateur level.”
Scouting may call to mind the more boring, long-game aspects of team-building, but there’s a fierceness required for it, too. If you’re an area scout trying to get the team to draft a guy you found, be prepared to pound the table. Mike Antonovich would hound Kekalainen endlessly to go see somebody like T.J. Oshie play before St. Louis selected him. That’s probably why Kekalainen later hired Antonovich to work for the Jackets — the self-assurance with which he carries himself is something the GM also seeks out in others. “They gotta believe in themselves and not sit on the fence, and push you to make those decisions,” Kekalainen says. “That’s what I most respect about guys like [Antonovich], that he would just push and believe in his guys and wouldn’t let you off the hook until you liked [the prospect] as much as he did.”
Make no mistake, the largely overlooked work done in Columbus on the ground level emboldened the group to make the splash that grabbed everyone’s attention. Sure, there’s going to be a lot of sitting and watching at upcoming drafts due to a lack of picks, but Kekalainen is quick to point out Columbus made all its moves without surrendering prized prospects like Texier, Liam Foudy and Emil Bemstrom. He believes the Jackets — whose farm team wound up dispatching Tampa’s, by the way — simply paid widely accepted market prices to improve. And if everyone eligible to walk away in a couple months exercises that option, the existing young core of Jones, Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois will soon be joined by the next wave of support.
“We don’t think we’re taking any crazy chances,” says Kekalainen. “Because we weren’t considered a Cup contender, everybody is like, “Ooh, ahh, they’re mortgaging their future; we don’t feel that way at all. If you have 10 great prospects of the same age, they’re not going to all play for you anyway. Our future is in good shape. We can afford to sacrifice some draft picks to get some immediate help, and that’s what we did. This was not a thing that happened at the deadline. This was a thing we’ve been thinking about all year.”
Now they’re in the process, they hope, of experiencing a payoff even the most optimistic soul in a sea of ecstatic Blue Jackets supporters didn’t dare imagine. Panarin and Duchene shared the team scoring lead following the third game of Columbus’s series versus Boston — a win that put the Jackets up two games to one. Bobrovsky not only found his peak form down the stretch, but carried it over into the second season for the first time in his career. And in no corner of the building will you find a hint of satisfaction yet.
“It wasn’t just my goal to become a GM, it was my goal to become a GM and win the Stanley Cup,” Kekalainen says.
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