Monday marked exactly 10 years since Jarmo Kekalainen took over as general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Since then, they've made the playoffs five times, including four years in a row from 2017-2020, winning one playoff series, against Tampa Bay in 2019. Currently, the Jackets are rebuilding, and have the league's third-best prospect pool, according to Scott Wheeler of The Athletic.
It doesn't take a genius to tell you that one playoff series win in 10 years is nowhere good enough, but Kekalainen deserves a lot of credit for putting this franchise in a better spot now than when he took over in 2013. To that point, they had made the playoffs just once since entering the league in the 2000-01 season.
Kekalainen deserves credit for signing Johnny Gaudreau, the top free agent on the market, and bringing him to Columbus, officially ending the garbage narrative that Columbus is not a desirable location.
But, with credit comes blame, as well. Was signing Erik Gudbranson, who, per hockeystatcards.com, has the league's 10th-lowest average game score to a four-year contract at $4M/year, necessary? Now, if it comes out that Gaudreau signed in Columbus because they signed Gudbranson, then it's worth it. What about the Elvis Merzlikins five-year, $5.4M/year extension signed before the 2021-22 season after Merzlikins played in just 63 games, regular season and playoffs, over two seasons in a John Tortorella system that notoriously is beneficial to goaltenders? That deal currently looks like one of the worst in the league. In the first year of his four-year, $8.7M/year extension, Patrik Laine has not lived up to his price tag, which is the 13th-highest among NHL wingers. Part of that has been due to bad injury luck, but with 15 goals in 40 games, he is only on a 30-goal pace over an 82-game season, which is good for most players, but not enough for a player with Laine's talent and capability.
What about Jack Roslovic? Players in their fifth full NHL season making $4M/year should not need to be healthy scratched, or be benched in the third period like he was was in the Jan. 23 game at Calgary. I understand that he finished the 2021-22 season on a high note and that his stats (22-23--45 in 81 GP) put him into a certain group regarding arbitration, but a two-year deal at $4M/year is a big number.
Sean Kuraly is a good fourth-line player, but four years at $2.5M/year with a modified no-trade clause?
As I said at the top of the article, this team has one of the best prospect pools in the league, and with a rebuilding team like the Blue Jackets, that's crucial. Kekalainen should have the opportunity to stay in charge throughout the rebuild. With players like Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, and Kirill Marchenko already in the NHL, and prospects like David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Jordan Dumais, and Luca Del Bel Belluz on the way, this team has a chance to be a perennial competitor for years to come. If that comes to fruition, Kekalainen will deserve a lot of credit.
But, with just one playoff series win in a decade, this rebuild has to lead to more success in the next decade.