Last spring, I met and interviewed Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen as part of a two-part story on one of the most brilliant talent evaluators and development gurus in the history of the National Hockey League (NHL).
I was unable to write the second half of this article due to the precedent of the Blue Jackets entering the rarified air of participating in just their second Stanley Cup playoffs where they took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the very limit, losing the series, four games to two but all games of which were highly contested until the very last seconds.
However, fortunately for myself, I took copious notes and am now able to finish the last portion of the two-part article.
Ever since Kekalainen was nabbed as the Blue Jackets GM on February 13, 2013, the previously moribund franchise had one lone taste of the playoffs and that was during the 2008-09 season where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games. After that season and for the next 2 plus seasons, the Blue Jackets descended to the nadir of NHL relevance, bottoming out during the 2012-13 season with the NHL’s worst record.
After struggling through the early part of the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13, sagging fortunes and attendance forced a change in the direction of the Blue Jackets and that’s when new team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson tapped his old scouting and player development advisor Kekalainen to become the NHL’s first European executive hire.
Almost immediately, the Blue Jackets began to play with a purpose and sense of direction as a fire had been lit under the old status quo mind-set of its players. The Blue Jackets surged to a 19-5-5 record, missing the playoffs only due to losing the last tiebreaker established the previous season during the commissioner’s/owner’s meetings.
But a 29-game surge would not be the elixir that could cure the fortunes of the Blue Jackets. Changes had to be made, not only with the present squad but with its development/prospects pool. The Blue Jackets had sagged towards the bottom half of the prospect rankings, not a dubious distinction for a team that occupied the bottom of the NHL standings, the by-product of disappointing drafts and an even greater inability to develop the players that were drafted.
Enter the savvy Kekalainen, he of the legendary legacy of drafting and developing a veritable who’s who of elite NHL talent while serving as the director of scouting and player development for the Ottawa Senators and the St. Louis Blue, respectively: Marian Hossa, Jason Spezza, Antti Niemi, Mike Fisher, TJ Oshie, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo and David Perron are amongst the numerous NHL stars and stalwarts that have been drafted and developed by Kekalainen. Kekalainen’s ability to mine unknown and previously untapped talent is simply impeccable.
Through Kekalainen’s efforts and those of his assistant GMs and scouts, the Blue Jackets have ascended to the top of the NHL’s prospect rankings, currently 2nd in The Hockey News and Hockey’s Future team rankings in a very short time, less than two years.
So what aspects does Kekalainen look for in prospects and veteran players? Above all, Kekalainen looks for how a player processes the game as it’s being played. Per Kekalainen, “the game moves with such speed that a player has to possess the ability to process the flow of the game so fast.” In short, it’s a type of athletic intelligence and mental circuitry that not all players possess, even those with superior physical attributes.
Kekalainen also aspires to a philosophy of patience. Per Kekalainen, “players develop at different rates and when they’re ready, they’re ready and there’s no sense of rushing it, for the good of the player. It is management’s philosophy to put players in position to succeed, and they must be very careful in the development process.”
Kekalainen has stuck to that philosophy in the execution of it, an example being former 4th overall draft pick, Alex Pietrangelo, one of the NHL’s elite defensemen. While other NHL teams may have moved similarly-drafted (position) players, the ever-patient Kekalainen sent Pietrangelo to major juniors not once, but twice. But, when Pietrangelo was ready, he became an immediate impact player and has led to the fortunes of the St. Louis Blues rising to the top of the NHL’s standings the last few years.
His philosophy of mental acuity extends to his veteran players as well as another vital aspect: physical conditioning. Kekalainen, who has participated in Ironman triathlons, has, along with his strength and conditioning coach, Kevin Collins, transformed the overall conditioning of the Blue Jackets. Evidence of this was during the team’s first training camp, where players previously considered fit were struggling to stay with the new levels of overall conditioning required for the rigors of the NHL regular season. If anything, it’s quite remarkable when your team’s General Manager is as fit, if not more fit, than his younger, seemingly more fit players.
So, with the embedding of Kekalainen’s philosophy for both prospects and veteran players, as well as an ‘all in’ mind-set, the Blue Jackets, the NHL’s youngest team, are ascending into one of the NHL’s and NHL Eastern Conference’s rising powers, a team that is brutal to play against and one that, under the tutelage of Kekalainen, is poised to remain a force for years to come.