How Jarmo Kekalainen Built The Blue Jackets

By Ed Francis on August 26, 2020 at 1:35 pm
Is Elvis Merzlikins the goalie of the future?
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Jarmo Kekalainen has served as general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets for over seven years.

None of them have been quite like this season though, and with a short schedule before the 2020-21 season begins, this off-season is guaranteed to be a fast-paced frenzy of signings and trades.

What will Kekalainen do? It’s the question we all wish we had the answer to. But since we can’t answer it yet, let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit the moves Jarmo has made that’s got Columbus in position to be a long-term contenders:


After seeing that Sergei Bobrovsky is the real deal, Steve Mason is traded away to Philadelphia. In the first two months of his tenure, it's one of two noteworthy trades Kekalainen made on April 3rd (the trade deadline, due to the lockout-shortened season): He also moved Derek Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore to the New York Rangers for Marian Gaborik. 

At the June draft, Kekalainen uses three first round draft picks to select Alexander Wennberg (14th overall), Kerby Rychel (19th), and Marko Dano (27th). But his best pick? Oliver Bjorkstrand, in the third round. 

Just a week after the draft, Bobrovsky is signed to an extension and the Blue Jackets make an at-the-time-splash in free agency, signing Nathan Horton for seven years. It wouldn't work out, as Horton's back gave out on him, but was thought of a brilliant move at the time. Later in the year, Columbus gives extensions to David Savard, Cam Atkinson, and Josh Anderson. 


After seeing the Gaborik experiment wasn’t going to work, he’s traded to Los Angeles for two draft picks (and Matt Fratin). The same day this trade was made, Columbus moves Jonathan Marchessault to the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the offseason, Joonas Korpisalo is signed to a three year deal, RJ Umberger is dealt for Scott Hartnell, and the Blue Jackets take Sonny Milano with their first round pick. Following the draft, it's a quiet offseason for the Blue Jackets. The next noteworthy move comes during the season: A six year extension for Nick Foligno at $33 million. 


Foligno wasn’t the only extension made during the season. Just two weeks into the new year, Sergei Bobrovsky is locked up for four seasons at $30 million. It would be the last time he signs a contract with the Blue Jackets. 

At the 2015 trade deadline, Columbus would acquire William Karlsson from Anaheim for a deal centered around James Wisniewski. In June, the Blue Jackets use the draft to build a defense: Zach Werenski (8th overall), Gabriel Carlsson (29th), Vladislav Gavrikov (159th), and Markus Nutivarra (189th) are all selected in the ‘15 draft. On the other side of the puck, Columbus used a second round pick on Kevin Stenlund.

Following the draft, Columbus swings a deal with Chicago for Brandon Saad and immediately sign him to a six year contract. Anisimov, Dano, Corey Tropp, and Jeremy Morin head to the Blackhawks in exchange for Saad.  


Arguably the best move in Kekalainen’s tenure, Columbus trades Ryan Johansen to Nashville for Seth Jones in January. Johansen and new coach John Tortorella don’t mesh, and Columbus is able to acquire who would become one of the leagues best defenseman in return. The Blue Jackets exit the draft with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Andrew Peeke part of the organization, and lock up Jones long-term. The pieces are starting to build.


Columbus stays relatively quiet at the deadline, acquiring Kyle Quincey from New Jersey and Lauri Korpikoski from Dallas to fill a couple of gaps. Alexandre Texier (45th overall) and Emil Bemstrom (117th) are selected in the draft. Later in the year, multi-year extensions are given to Atkinson, Anderson, and Wennberg.

The biggest move of the year? No doubt about it: On June 23rd, Kekalainen pulls the trigger on a trade centered around returning Saad back to Chicago. In return? Artemi Panarin, who would help propel the franchise beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. 


Perhaps the most quiet year in Jarmo’s tenure. Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Jussi Jokinen are traded for at the deadline as short-term rentals, and Columbus would bring Eric Robinson into the organization prior to the end of the season. Months later, Kekalainen selects Liam Foudy with the teams first round pick and Kirill Marchenko in round two. Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair are brought in as free agents during the summer. The extensions of 2018 are noteworthy, however:  Nutivarra, Bjorkstrand, Murray are all given extensions, as are Boone Jenner and Dean Kukan.


Columbus goes all-in. With Bobrovsky and Panarin on expiring contracts, Kekalainen decides to keep them both - and then acquire Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid at the deadline. The move would cost the Blue Jackets several draft picks and prospects, but would prove to pay-off with a first round sweep of the Stanley Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning. More extensions are given, this time with Columbus locking up Murray and Gavrikov for two more years, Werenski, Bemstrom, and Andrew Peeke for three seasons. Gustav Nyquist joins via free agency on a friendly deal. 


How the year plays out remains to be seen, but Kekalainen was productive during the pause, signing both Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins to two-year extensions. One of the biggest questions that could soon have an answer: Do the Blue Jackets move one of them for some much-needed goal scoring?