Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and forward Patrik Laine spoke to the media today for the first time since the two parties agreed on a four-year extension with an $8.7M AAV.
Here's what they had to say.
While he was happy to sign Laine, Kekalainen had to trade Oliver Bjorkstrand to make sure the team would be cap compliant.
"Definitely mixed emotions," he said. "Probably the hardest decision I ever had to make as GM of the Blue Jackets."
It is the ugly part of the business, I guess that's what you wanna call it," he added. "The decision had to be made."
Kekalainen emphasizes what a "class act" Oliver Bjorkstrand is. #CBJ— Coby Maeir (@CobyMaeir) July 23, 2022
This cap crunch started with the signing of Johnny Gaudreau.
"You just can't pass on a player like that," Kekalainen said.
Kekalainen had all summer to make this type of trade, so why now?
"To wait would have been a huge risk for us to not become cap compliant," he said. "You can't be not compliant. You have to start the year as a cap-compliant team and you don't wanna be squeezed into a hole where you have to play with a short roster with 19 men because you cant call up anybody if you have an injury and so forth."
Now to the topic of Patrik Laine. Kekalainen spoke about the growth Laine still can make in his game while also adding that the deal works for both parties involved.
"I think we saw the real potential he has," he said. "And he's a young player so we believe in his growth still. And I think the term is real smart both for us and for him. He's gonna get another kick at [unrestricted free agency] when he's 28 years old and we get a player in his prime for the [four] years that we're doing right now and [if] everything goes as planned, we'll be looking at extending him again."
Kekalainen also spoke about multiple aspects of Laine's game and how good he can be at his best.
"He was a point per game player for us," he said. "And went through some struggles [but] when he really got on his game he was dominant at times this year and he can do so many things and he's big and he's got the reach and everyone talks about the shot but I think his passing skills are underrated and we expect him to grow with our group."
He also added the expectations that come along with a contract like this.
"That's the thing," he said. "This doesn't mean that he's arrived anywhere. That means expectations are going to rise and I'm sure he's the first one to say that he's got much bigger expectations for him. And I think this is a good deal for both of us."
Kekalainen says this signing combined with the Gaudreau signing puts them in a great spot for the future.
"I think that we're in [a] great position now to grow in the next few years," he said. "We're going to be a real contender."
I asked Kekalainen if at any point there was any doubt that a deal would get done between the team and Laine.
"I had zero doubt," he said.
After the Bjorkstrand trade, Kekalainen says the Blue Jackets are comfortable with their salary cap status.
"We're fine now," he said. "And that's why we wanted to make this move because we needed the flexibility and we have plenty of depth at forward and there's going to be a lot of competition for the roster spots. We're just going to stay on the 23-man roster, and I think our defense is in good shape now too."
While the team has made several moves this summer, Kekalainen says they may not be finished.
"I'm not saying we are done by any means," he said. "I always say this, that we're not done until the deadline for the 22-23 season. So we're gonna keep working at it and try to make our roster better every day. That's our job."
He also gave an update on Alexandre Texier, who hasn't played in an NHL game since January 26th, as to whether or not he'll be ready for the season.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "And I've said this before, he was probably our best forward at the time when he took the leave of absence. We've been in contact with him regularly and constantly and we hope that he's back feeling good and taking another step in his career. I thought he took a huge step last year, played great, so that's what we expect from him next year."
Laine is excited to get the deal done and even more excited to play with Gaudreau.
"[I] couldn't be more excited right now," he said. "Like I said to [Brad Larsen] and Jarmo [Kekalainen] when they signed Johnny [Gaudreau], I told them that I don't think I've ever been this excited to play hockey."
He added that he didn't believe the team signed Gaudreau when he first heard about it.
"We were actually going to Spain on Thursday [July 14, the day after the club signed Gaudreau] morning," he said. "So me and my buddy woke up at like three in the morning Thursday, and he woke me up and said, 'you guys signed Gaudreau.' And I was like 'no, no, no chance, no chance, you're playing with me.' And then I checked my phone and all these messages and checked Twitter and all that, and I saw that we got Johnny, so I was pretty pumped. I feel like it was hard to scroll [through] my phone, I think my hands were shaking. It's so exciting to get that kind of player [on] your team. Obviously, he can help us [in] so many ways, but yeah, that was the way that I found out."
Have Laine and Gaudreau communicated about where they'll play on the ice together?
"No," he said. "I just texted him welcome to the team and just exchanged a couple of texts but not so much who's playing with who that's up to [Brad Larsen] and those guys but obviously [I'm] hopeful to maybe get the chance to play with him and I feel like we could complement each other pretty well on the ice but I guess we'll see."
Like Kekalainen, Laine didn't doubt this deal would get done.
"I feel like it was mutual, right after the season that they want me here, and for me, this is the place I wanna keep playing at. And I think everybody was negotiating in good faith the whole time and it's always gonna take time in these certain deals, but yeah I'm happy it's done now and I don't have to worry about it for the next four years and just [getting] to focus on getting ready for this year and just enjoying myself."
Laine spoke highly about his time in Columbus so far.
"As soon as I got there, it was like a family-style atmosphere at the rink," he said. Everybody cares about each other. Doesn't matter if you're a strength guy, if you're medical, equipment, management, it doesn't matter. Everybody gets along really well [and] has fun together. That's the most important thing for me, I think. You've gotta enjoy your time at the rink and whenever you're working, everybody's themselves and everybody else to go forward. Obviously, Columbus, it's been [an] awesome city for me. We've really enjoyed being there and [are] just happy to be there for the next four years."
Laine is pleased with the team's moves this off-season.
"I'm super excited," he said. "I feel like we took a really good step in the right direction this summer. Obviously, Jarmo [Kekalainen] and all the management, they did a great job of drafting great players and making good deals. And as a player, that's all you can ask for. They wanna make this team better, that's what all the players want."
He also said that has a preference as to which wing he plays on, but he'll play anywhere.
"I probably would prefer [the] left side, for me personally," he said. "But it really doesn't matter. You've got certain options from the right, certain things from the left, but at the end of the day, you're gonna be kind of all over the place anyways. But, it's usually just on paper whether you're a left-wing or a right-wing and where do you start on faceoffs. You can still get creative, especially me and [Jakub Voracek], we were kind of laughing about it every now and then that we're both all over the place and don't really know what we're doing once in a while. But, it doesn't matter, wherever the coach wants me to play, I'll play there."
Laine spoke about the potential of playing with Gaudreau and the damage they could do.
"If I have a chance to play with a guy like that, it will be awesome," he said. "Hopefully we could build some chemistry. I feel like we could be a really good duo in this league and hopefully bring our power play to a new level and win this team a lot of hockey games."
While Laine has shown how great he can be, he feels like he can always be better.
"You can always get better in this sport," he said. "...And for me, I think it's just gotta be more steady throughout the year. I think last year I closed the gap between a bad game and a good game a little bit, that's kind of been my main issue, usually, that there's hot streaks and then there's those streaks where things are not going so well.... So I think that's probably my main focus throughout the year, stay positive, work hard, and as long as you work hard you're gonna get all the chances and all the things you can imagine so that's probably gonna be the main focus of my individual game."
He's also excited about the team's two games in his hometown of Tampere, Finland.
"I don't wanna jinx it," he said. "I don't wanna promise I'll be there 'cause I don't wanna be sick or injured or anything like that so I don't wanna jinx it. But it'll be awesome."
I asked Laine about the narrative of Columbus not being a desirable place to play and how his extension along with Gaudreau's signing and Zach Werenski's extension last summer could change that.
"I've never really understood that in the beginning, why would guys say that," he said. "For me, it was always one of the best road cities to go to when I was in Winnipeg, I always enjoyed it. Personally, I don't get it, why guys, like big names, have left before. For me, that was never in my head, that I wanted to go somewhere else. [Columbus] feels like home to me already, especially seeing the team we have right now, what we have coming up the next couple of years, and for the future. There's no place I'd rather play in this league. And I feel like, well Johnny [Gaudreau] signed, [Zach Werenski] signed, a lot of the other guys signed, I feel like we all feel the same way, and I feel like, well it doesn't matter what other people say or think, we love it here. Everybody who plays for this organization, works here, they love it. So that's all that matters.
While he suffered an upper-body injury towards the end of the season, Laine expects to be ready for training camp.
"I'll be ready to go whenever I come over," he said.