With his team sagging to a woeful, 4–8–0 February, Blue Jackets fans expected general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to make a splash at the NHL's trade deadline.
Would he make a run at Blue Jackets great Rick Nash? Was he going to deal defenseman Jack Johnson, who had signaled his desire to move on months earlier?
Kekalainen did indeed make some moves – three to be precise – but once the dust had settled, the response in Columbus, and indeed around much of the league was a collective “That's it?”
Jarmo made his first move on Sunday, Feb. 25, sending the Nashville Predators a fourth-round pick in this summer's draft for forward Mark Letestu. The 33-year-old center was familiar with Columbus, having spent four seasons with the Jackets from 2011-15.
The next day, trade deadline day, he scored defenseman Ian Cole from the Senators as part of a three-team deal, giving up forward Nick Moutrey and a third-round pick in 2020. Not long after, he sent forward Jordan Maletta to Arizona for center prospect Ryan Kujawinski.
Kekalainen's last move before the deadline came when he acquired Thomas Vanek from the Canucks for Tyler Motte and Jussi Jokinen. A 40-goal scorer in his younger days, Vanek could still put the puck in the net, but at 34, some wondered if he had much left in the tank.
The trades amounted to solid additions to a Blue Jackets team eyeing a postseason run, even if they didn't pack the wow factor of a deal for Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, or any of the other big names changing teams at the deadline.
“We like our team right now.”– GM Jarmo Kekalainen at the trade deadline
Jarmo liked what he was getting, however.
“We want to give our team the best possible chance to make the playoffs," Kekalainen said after the moves. “That’s the goal. Adding the veterans we added will give us a better chance. We like our team right now.”
In the 15 games since the trade deadline, it's becoming clear just how well the Blue Jackets made out. The Blue Jackets are a league-best 12–3 since the deadline, including a 10-game winning streak mixed in there, and the new faces – particularly Vanek and Cole – are producing.
Vanek got off to a slow start as a Blue Jacket, failing to score in his first four games as he adjusted to new line mates and a new locker room. In the 10 games since, he's been nothing short of brilliant, scoring 13 points (7-6-13). Tuesday night in Edmonton, he recorded his first hat trick for his new team, finishing the night with four points and a +3 rating.
When you consider who the Jackets gave up for Vanek – Tyler Motte and Jussi Jokinen – that is a steal of a trade for Jarmo.
Cole has been just as valuable on the blue line, solidifying the second pairing with his veteran presence and puck-seizing tenacity. He's an impressive +13 in his 15 games as a Blue Jacket, with seven points along the way.
Letestu, for his part, scored in his first outing after his return to the Blue Jackets, helping the team to a 5-1 win over the Washington Capitals. He's a known commodity and with Nick Foligno out two to four weeks, provides valuable depth in the middle for the Jackets.
So while Kekalainen's deadline moves didn't send shockwaves through the NHL, they were the right moves for his team, which is playing its best hockey of the season as it storms towards the playoffs.