Jarmo Kekalainen was John Davidson's top choice.
The new boss of the Blue Jackets could have replaced Scott Howson as soon as he took office in Oct. 2012, but he waited and did his homework. It became clear that Jarmo Kekalainen, with whom he'd worked in St. Louis for a number of years, was the guy to lead the Blue Jackets forward.
It took less than a day for the organization to announce Howson's departure and then Kekalainen's arrival, right as the Blue Jackets took off in the second half of a lockout-shortened season and nearly made the playoffs. As the deadline neared, many wondered how Kekalainen would handle his first real milestone in the GM's chair.
Play it safe? Make a low-level add for depth?
All he did was trade three franchise mainstays – Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore – to the New York Rangers for Marian Gaborik, who (at the time) was one of the higher-profile names to suit up for the Jackets. Whether or not the trade worked out is up for debate, but it set the stage for what has marked Kekalainen's tenure as Blue Jackets GM: bold, convicted and with a clear idea who fits and who doesn't.
They made the playoffs the following season – Kekalainen's first full year as GM – and nearly bounced the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
And under his watch, the plan for rebuilding the Blue Jackets has been focused on the defense. Early on in his tenure, Kekalainen talked often about how their defense needed to become more skilled and mobile, and they have added over time to create one of the most dynamic young blue lines in the NHL.
What are some of the big wins of Kekalainen's tenure? There are quite a few.
– Acquiring Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen.
– Acquiring Brandon Saad from Chicago, which then led to Artemi Panarin.
– Drafting Zach Werenski at No. 8 overall in 2015.
– Drafting Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3 overall (when he was thought crazy to do so) in 2016.
– Signing Sergei Bobrovsky to two economical extensions ($5.625M per and then $7.425M per) for a combined six seasons, including two Vezina Trophies.
– Turning R.J. Umberger, who'd asked for a trade, into two productive seasons of Scott Hartnell.
– Signing Sam Gagner, who turned in a 50-point season, for $650,000 on a one-year deal.
– Drafting a skilled young defenseman named Markus Nutivaara in the seventh round (!) in 2015.
– Bringing on John Tortorella as head coach in Oct. 2015. The Blue Jackets are 112-88-20 under Tortorella, who was the Jack Adams Award winner in 2017.
– Less of a "move," but Kekalainen held firm in two testy contract negotiations (Johansen and Josh Anderson) that resulted in club-friendly deals.
Now, they haven't all been wins (Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, and a few contracts that aren't aging well), but it's undeniable that the Blue Jackets have enjoyed the best run of success in franchise history with Kekalainen making the hockey decisions. Credit also goes to Howson, who made several moves to lay the groundwork that Kekalainen had to work with upon joining the Blue Jackets.
Here's the year-by-year record in the Kekalainen era:
2017-18 (to date): 28-23-4