The Columbus Blue Jackets, like so many teams in the Eastern Conference as well as the Metropolitan Division, are bunched together in the quest for the last few Stanley Cup playoff spots. In most of their 13-year history, playoff pushes were considered rarified air, as the season was either long lost or they were positioned to become sellers at the March trade deadline.
However, on those rare occasions in which they were on the cusp of trying to qualify for a Stanley Cup playoff berth, the Blue Jackets previous management regimes’ trade deadline moves were usually one of two types: either something extremely conservative so as not to wreck the core group of players, or somewhat of an underwhelming ‘plug-in’ move, with the hope of it serving as the last piece to secure that last playoff position.
But those were the old days, those days of diminished goals and expectations offered to its long-suffering, loyal fans. Today, however, the Blue Jackets possess a new regime, have much higher expectations and provide a whole new perspective on both continuing to grow the organization and hoist, and not merely hope to qualify for, Lord Stanley’s Cup.
If there were any doubts that the new management regime were complacent and risk adverse, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen erased those doubts to both its fans and to the entire National Hockey League (NHL) that he was not afraid to position the team for both immediate and long-term success in less than one month on the job.
At last season’s April (note: due to last season’s NHL lockout, the league’s trade deadline date was pushed back one month from its usual early March deadline) Kekalainen traded previous core future fixtures Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore to the New York Rangers for Slavic Sniper Marian Gaborik.
This move simultaneously sent a signal to their fans and the league that the Blue Jackets were ‘all in’, that Kekalainen was going to provide the team with its best opportunity to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs while still keeping those players who he felt were best suited to play the game the way he and Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson envision it to be played.
Although the Blue Jackets narrowly missed out on qualifying for the playoffs, it was only due to missing out on the last possible tie-breaker, that being ‘Regulation and Overtime Wins’ (ROW). It wasn’t, however, due to a lack of effort by its team and Kekalainen as the Blue Jackets finished the regular season with a furious 19-5-5 push, helped to an extent by the acquisition of Gaborik.
This season, it’s a bit of a different story as the Blue Jackets are merely a few points out of the eighth and final playoff position and four points, with two games in hand, from the second position in the Metropolitan Division and the sixth overall position in the Eastern Conference standings, were the Stanley Cup playoffs to start, today. Of course, with the condensed post-Olympic schedule, the standings will change, daily. Also, Gaborik has missed 39 of 40 games since mid-November, returning to play the past two games since the Winter Olympics break, yet the Blue Jackets have played inspired, winning hockey during that period, prompting speculation that the Blue Jackets are fielding offers for the goal-scoring winger for this year’s trade deadline.
However, Kekalainen’s prowess and vision for the organization have not changed. His vision is to have the Blue Jackets play at a high rate of speed, both physically and mentally, while utilizing a tight fore-checking, north-south style of play with sound defense and elite goaltending, anchored by defending Vezina Trophy recipient Sergei Bobrovsky.
So, what possible players could Kekalainen target to acquire at the NHL’s trade deadline, scheduled for March 5th at 3 P.M., and what players might he consider offering up as part of the return in any potential trades? No one besides Kekalainen knows for sure, but in the second part of my article, I will offer some players to keep in mind as well as what players might be offered up in exchange for the acquired players, giving consideration to the above-mentioned vision for the organization.