Jarmo Kekalainen On Blue Jackets Competing For Stanley Cup Titles: “I Don't Think We're Far Off”

By Colin Hass-Hill on September 1, 2020 at 10:50 am
Nick Foligno
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The rage inside John Tortorella about the Columbus Blue Jackets’ inability to escape the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs cost him $25,000 in a quick sub-60-second post-game press conference.

He didn’t want to dissect what went wrong in the fourth one-goal loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, which eliminated them from the postseason. He didn’t have any desire to talk about what he called the “touchy-feely stuff.” He just got up and left.

Maybe if the 4-1 series loss had happened a couple of years ago, Tortorella would have had a different reaction. Yet due to the Blue Jackets’ now-prolonged inability to make a run in the deep postseason, it’s eating him up.

“I get sick of these conversations when you get eliminated,” Tortorella said two days after the Blue Jackets dropped their final game. “It's the elimination conversation: What did you get out of the playoffs, were there positives, the young kids playing? I'm tired of those conversations.”

And Tortorella isn’t alone. Most of the team’s fans agree.

Columbus has reached the playoff four seasons in a row, which is twice as many times as it got to the postseason in the first 15 years of the franchise’s existence. However, nobody these days is awarding any medals to the Blue Jackets for just getting there. They’ve got to actually make a run one of these years.

In 2017 and 2018, Columbus got bounced without winning a series. Each of the past two years, it won one series before facing elimination.

So, when will the Blue Jackets finally get in the mix for Stanley Cup championships? Consider general manager Jarmo Kekalainen an optimist.

“I say this with all sincerity: I don't think we're far off,” Kekalainen said last week.

He reiterated his point twice during a recent edition of The Inside Edge on CBJ Radio.

“I really wanted to see us get to Game 6 and shift the momentum a little bit in that series,” Kekalainen said. “We've beaten that team before. We could have beaten them this year. We didn't. They were better than us this time. But moving forward, there's a lot of encouraging signs and a lot of encouraging performances from our young players, and they're only going to get better.”

Both Kekalainen and Tortorella would prefer not to take shots at another team, especially after losing a series, 4-1. Based on both of their comments in the weeks following Columbus’ loss to Tampa Bay, it’s clear the coach and general manager think this year’s team could have gotten over the hump.

Alas, it didn’t. Too many missed opportunities sunk the Blue Jackets, who had a stout defense with steady goaltenders yet an inconsistent offense averaging 2.4 goals scored per game.

Looking ahead to a season that’s slated to start in early December following a shorter-than-usual offseason, Kekalainen believes his continual stressing of internal growth will pay off. That’s especially true given how much postseason hockey many of those still in their low-20s have played.

“I think that young group is going to be our core very soon and a core that's going to be ready for some success, and when I say success I mean going deeper into the playoffs and really challenging for the Stanley Cup,” Kekalainen said. “I can't wait for the next season to start again.”

His reasoning for the mixture of hope and confidence? Just look at the roster, he says.

“You've seen the growth in Pierre-Luc Dubois and you've seen the growth in our top pairing defensemen that are not even in their prime yet,” Kekalainen said. “Those guys can still keep getting a lot better. We've seen the great performances of our goaltenders. Alexandre Texier missed a lot of time this year, but he was ready for first-line duty there in the playoffs and played well. We have a lot of positives going for our team. I could name a lot more players. Our defensive depth is definitely one of our key components. (Vladislav) Gavrikov came in, first full year in the league, played excellent for us.”

It helps, of course, that the Blue Jackets had one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season, offering some valuable postseason experience to players who haven’t been around the league for many years. If Kekalainen wants, he could bring back the entire team without almost any changes. They don’t have any unrestricted free agents, and they expect to secure contracts for Dubois and Gavrikov, both of whom are restricted free agents.

So even if Columbus makes a trade or signs a free agent, much of the roster will remain intact.

“We have a good team,” Kekalainen said. “I said that before this year when everybody doubted us and basically wrote us off because a few players left and we have no chance. Well, we made the playoffs again and we made some strides and we're going to keep getting better.”

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