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One of the major problems with the NHL is how often you can predict things that will happen long before they do.
The Red Wings being great was something to which you could set your watch every August, and you could always bank on phenomenal performances from Sidney Crosby. There's very little fun in it, so when something unexpected happens, like the Coyotes quickly becoming a top-notch team when they hired Dave Tippett, or the Blues coming out of nowhere last season, or the Blackhawks returning to power a few years back before winning a Stanley Cup, it's always genuinely great to see.
And that's how I feel about the Blue Jackets hiring Jarmo Kekalainen as their general manager.
Scott Howson, for all the talk about how hard he tried and how his firing was more about going in a "different direction" than his personal job performance, was simply not a good NHL general manager. That much was obvious to anyone who saw how pathetically bungled the Rick Nash saga was, or his draft record, or most of his other trades, and the vast majority of his free agent signings.
But you have to give Howson this: He just set his successor up for an hilariously successful future.
Howson's drafting and trading over the last few years has accumulated a decent number of prospects that range from "good" to "very good," though to be fair maybe only one can be considered "great." They're mainly defensemen, like Ryan Murray (the benefit of picking second, one supposes), David Savard and Tim Erixon, as well as goaltender Oskar Dansk. No overwhelming prospects, but a good group nonetheless. Grabbing guys like Cam Atkinson hasn't hurt either. But overall there's a reason Hockey Prospectus and Hockey's Future have the Blue Jackets in the bottom half of the league when it comes to prospects.
Which is where Kekalainen comes in.
I knew he was well-regarded in the scouting world as a shrewd evaluator of talent and more to the point is often credited as being the guy who helped build the Ottawa Senators of the mid-2000s and St. Louis Blues of today. Those were, or are, both very good teams, but it wasn't until I saw the actual list of players Kekalainen personally drafted in three years with Ottawa and eight with St. Louis.
In chronological order: Marian Hossa (1997), Mike Fisher (1998), Martin Havlat and Chris Kelly (1999), Anton Volchenkov and Antoine Vermette (2000), Jason Spezza and Brooks Laich (2001), David Backes (2003), Roman Polak (2004), TJ Oshie and Ben Bishop (2005), Erik Johnson and Patrik Berglund (2006), Lars Eller and David Perron (2007), Alex Pietrangelo (2008), Vladimir Tarasenko (2010). And so on. That's an awful lot of solid or even spectacular NHLers to churn out over that many seasons with two different teams.
And now he brings all that drafting acumen to Columbus, where he has the benefit of three first-round picks this year (his own, as well as those of the Kings and Rangers), and could be in a position to signficantly improve his team in what is going to be a very deep draft. No matter what he chooses to do with those picks — use them, package some to move up, etc. — it's a pretty safe bet that they'll be well-spent.
A lot of people have praised this as being some sort of outside-the-box thinking on the Blue Jackets' part. Kekalainen is, after all, the first European general manager in NHL history. There may be some validity to the thinking that he can bring fresh ideas from his time as general manager of Jokerit and blend them with what he picked up in the North American game from his decades of playing and front office-ing on this side of the Atlantic.
But it wasn't really all that bold. Team president John Davidson would have known him and the quality of his work for years, and scouting director Paul Castron worked with him in Ottawa. Kekalainen was a familiar face to them; a guy they knew, but most NHL fans probably didn't.
If anything, the boldest part of this is that the Blue Jackets didn't even consider anyone else for the job. Usually there's a whole slew of guys from the GM's good old boys network that have to be considered first.
What is interesting, however, is that Kekalainen is very much an acolyte of the way in which hockey's now going. He thinks there's an incredible value in advanced stats, as do a number of other organizations throughout the NHL. I honestly don't know whether Scott Howson was a big fan of advanced stats, but given that their team staff page doesn't list anyone as being in charge of or involved with that type of thing, he probably wasn't.
Kekalainen likes them so much he's quoted on the latest Hockey Prospectus annual publication, saying, "Stats are facts...In the long run they hardly ever lie. Thorough analytical work, like that done by Hockey Prospectus, is needed to make a proper evaluation of them." That's a terribly refreshing thing for an NHL general manager to say.
It should be said that the Blue Jackets, even with this new GM so full of promise, have a long ways to go before they're going to be any kind of success story, and it could be years before the fruits of Kekalainen's coming labors become evident. They have good pieces around which to build, but this currently doesn't look anything like a playoff team, nor is it a destination that free agents will consider. Kekalainen will have a lot of work to do to turn both of those things around.
At the same time, though, I don't recall ever having seen the entire hockey media so uniformly assured that any GM hire will turn out as they are with this one.
It's just all so surprising. The Columbus Blue Jackets making actual good decisions? The potential for them to actually be competitive in a few years?
That's going to take some gettting used to, but I'm excited to try.
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