The Hockey News - Money & Power

5 JARMO KEKALAINEN

The NHL’s first European GM has pulled the trigger on big trades and trusted his gut at the draft. But he’s in a sticky situation with two top UFAs

- BY AARON PORTZLINE

AGE: 52 | TOP 100: 100 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS GM

LESS THAN SIX weeks after he was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in February 2013, GM Jarmo Kekalainen pulled off one of the biggest trades in franchise history, sending Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett to the New York Rangers in exchange for Marian Gaborik and two minor-leaguers.

Three years later, Kekalainen swung one of the biggest 1-for-1 trades in recent memory, shipping Blue Jackets’ top-line center Ryan Johansen to Nashville for defenseman Seth Jones.

The first trade stated Kekalainen’s arrival in the NHL, his willingnes­s to make a splash. The second one proved his fearlessne­ss in trading a franchise centerpiec­e such as Johansen. There have been other blockbuste­rs, too.

But now Kekalainen, the NHL’s first European GM, finds himself in a much different situation. With the eyes of the hockey world upon him, he may be forced to move two players he doesn’t want to trade.

Left winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky – only the most-skilled forward and best goalie to ever play for the franchise – can both become UFAs July 1, and both have proven difficult to re-sign. Panarin won’t even talk contract extension with the Jackets, while Bobrovsky has set his price tag so high – see Montreal’s Carey Price ($10.5 million per season), then look north – that talks have yet to gain traction.

Similar to the 2012 NHL trade deadline, when the entire league honed in on Columbus to see if then-GM Scott Howson would honor Rick Nash’s trade request, the Blue Jackets expect national media to descend upon the city in the days leading up to Feb. 25. How Kekalainen handles this difficult time will quite obviously have a huge impact on the Blue Jackets’ next several seasons, and it could affect the power balance in the entire NHL.

Kekalainen could be faced with the hellish task of trading one or both players – Bobrovsky has a full no-move clause – at the deadline, even if the Jackets are in a playoff position. For a club that’s only qualified for the playoffs four times and has never made it past the first round, that’s a bitter pill.

Don’t expect Kekalainen to flinch, though. In 2008, when the St. Louis Blues hired Doug Armstrong as director of player personnel with a promise that he’d be GM in two seasons, Kekalainen was so “pissed off” at being passed over without much considerat­ion – he was the Blues’ director of amateur scouting at the time – he left St. Louis to return to Finland. Five years later, he was hired in Columbus by president of hockey operations John Davidson, who, ironically, had hired Armstrong over Kekalainen just years earlier in St. Louis.

The Blue Jackets were an unmitigate­d disaster (172-25862) under inaugural GM Doug MacLean. Under Howson, they tasted success and gained respectabi­lity but also had wild mood swings (174-190-59). Under Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets are 250-183-42, by far the franchise’s best run, though it must be said that Howson made the trades to land Bobrovsky, captain Nick Foligno and a some other key pieces.

Kekalainen was hired because of his long scouting history with Ottawa and St. Louis and because the Blue Jackets were embarking on a longrange view to rebuild the franchise. His pivotal moment with

the team came at the 2016 draft, when the hockey world expected the Blue Jackets to take his Finnish countryman, Jesse Puljujarvi, with the No. 3 overall pick. Instead, the Jackets pulled off a shocker and drafted center Pierre-Luc Dubois, a selection that brought boos and whistles on the draft floor and stinging criticism from the media. In hindsight, it looks like Kekalainen made the right pick.

Dubois is a budding No. 1 center, a 20-year-old NHL sophomore playing on the Blue Jackets’ top line with Panarin and right winger Cam Atkinson. Puljujarvi, who went No. 4 to the Oilers, has struggled to find his way in Edmonton.

The drafting of Dubois is the top line on Kekalainen’s resume for now. By the end of February – good or bad – that’s almost certain to change.

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