Jarmo Kekalainen, John Tortorella Stress Improving Blue Jackets Through Margins This Offseason

By Colin Hass-Hill on August 25, 2020 at 10:00 am
John Tortorella
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Names get thrown out all the time.

What would the Columbus Blue Jackets have to give up in order to hit the trade market this offseason and make a splash by bringing back Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres in a deal? Or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from the Edmonton Oilers? Or Kasperi Kapanen from the Toronto Maple Leafs? Or another big name who can aid one of the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL?

It’s hard not to hear those suggestions, even for someone in a decision-making position such as general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

“It's easy to be the armchair GM or whatever they call it and say that, OK, trade this guy for that guy,” Kekalainen said on Friday. “There's 30 other teams in the league and 31, pretty soon, other teams than us. They're all pretty smart people, and they don't just give away their players. It's a little harder to make a trade than a lot of people imagine.”

Undoubtedly, Columbus will explore all possibilities. This, even while considering that Kekalainen has set the franchise up for long-term success, feels like a pivotal offseason. After back-to-back first-round Stanley Cup playoff exits, the Blue Jackets need to shift around its parts to get to the next level. As coach John Tortorella says, making that next step will require certain younger, inexperienced players currently on the roster to develop over the next few months. But it also means the front office will have to make some moves.

Perhaps that means bringing in a stud center or one of the top-scoring wingers on the market. As Kekalainen reiterated on Friday, all avenues will be explored.

But regardless of whether that type of move happens or not, Columbus will do what it can to win around the margins.

No, that’s not nearly as fun focusing on the team going star-chasing. It’s not as exciting as going out and landing a premier goal-scorer in the NHL. Still, it’s key to building a sustainable winning team that doesn’t require significant overhauls every year or two in order to remain in the playoffs as a contender.

“What Jarmo's done, I think some of the crucial moves he's done over the years, it's just not the obvious things that maybe we may need some help,” John Tortorella said. “But if there's a better player in that spot – even if we have some people, is there a better player? I think he's always looking in all areas of the team to try to improve. It's a tough thing to do.”

And it’s necessary, especially for a team in a smaller market.

“Our center ice position has always been talked about,” Tortorella said. “You just don't find center icemen in the league. Everybody's looking for those guys. So you've got to find other ways to try to make your team better. I think our management team has done a terrific job in finding those people.”

Tortorella pointed at the acquisition of Gustav Nyquist, who just completed his first year with the Blue Jackets, as an example. They inked him to a four-year, $22 million contract as an unheralded free-agent signing in the same offseason that they lost Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene.

Nyquist recorded 15 goals and 27 assists in the shortened regular season, averaging a career-high 18:02 of time on the ice.

“When we lost everybody and we signed Gus, he was a huge part of our team this year and went under the radar,” Tortorella said.

The seemingly minor moves around the margins can help a team maintain its winning ways when it’s not planning to go on free-agent spending frenzies every offseason. As Kekalainen mentioned on Friday, his plan to make Columbus a championship-quality team and keep it at that level doesn’t include a healthy reliance on signings.

And it’s not exactly easy to land studs elsewhere – unless you’re both willing and able to pay a big price through a trade.

“To get a player like Alex Lafreniere, you're going to have to be winning the lottery or being the last place to have the best chance to win the lottery,” Kekalainen said. “That's how the system works. That's why the league's got so much parity is the system that it has in place right now. We've seen it. We drafted Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall and Zach Werenski at eight. In order to get those type of impact players, usually you have to be in the top-10 and maybe in the top-three, and that means you're pretty close to the last place in the league.”

So, the Blue Jackets will see what types of smaller moves they can make to win on the margins while, at the same time, exploring what’s out there on the trade market.

“There are other ways to improve,” Kekalainen said. “We're going to look at it all. As I've said many times, our scouting staff's done a great job finding players that are good NHL players from later in the draft. We've got an interesting offseason coming up with an important draft again, and we have our first-round pick this year. Lots of exciting things.”

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