Jarmo Kekalainen: "I Think We Proved We Can Turn This Around Quicker Than Calling It a Rebuild, Which is Why We Didn't"

By Will Chase on May 10, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' head coach Brad Larsen looks on in the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts, the 2021-22 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets was a successful one.

Make no mistake. The playoffs are always the goal for every club and the ultimate measure of success.

Yet, the Blue Jackets knew their reset was the reality for where things stood entering the 2021-22 season and a nearly .500 record from start to finish, culminating in a final mark of 37-38-7 with 81 points was much better than pundits predicted them for last fall.

Now that the Jackets are one season into their organizational transition, they're trying to take a leap into contention status.

"I think every step is going to be hard, and we got lots of steps to take before we can get close to why we're here, which is starting to play now and playing four rounds, and lifting something heavy after that," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.

"We talked about retooling or reset last year at this time and I think we proved we can turn this around quicker than calling it a rebuild, which is why we didn't.

"I thought there were a lot of positives, obviously, you can't be happy not making the playoffs but we felt that we were competitive and we were gonna be close. I think in that sense, thinking that going into the season, we can be fairly satisfied we took the right steps from a year ago to where we are now.

"I'm excited about where the team's at."

With lots of exciting prospects and players already part of the organization's future, part of the evaluation process for Kekelainen and the coaching staff now is figuring out any changes to the makeup of the roster as they go forward.

"This is the ultimate team sport I call it," Kekelainen said. "It truly needs the five-man unit every time they're on the ice but not only that, but the 20 guys, and the 25 guys that are in that room to be a true team. It doesn't matter if you have big stars if they're not working together, you're not going to win anything.

"A big part of the player evaluation is that does that guy fit in if we're bringing somebody up from outside, how does he fit in with our group.

"We try to evaluate it on three different levels. What kind of a hockey player? What kind of an athlete? What kind of a teammate and human being? Those are all equally important parts of the evaluation. It's something we put a lot of emphasis in, and a lot of work in the background to find out everything we can about the character."

Patrik Laine was back to the Laine of old in year two with the Blue Jackets, making his next contract among the off-season priorities for Kekalainen.

"I feel we know him fairly well on those three levels that I just mentioned," Kekalainen said. "We've done our background work with him. Knowing him as a hockey player is probably the easiest part. Knowing him as an athlete and a human being and teammate is harder but I think we did a lot of that homework before he got here and we obviously know him a lot better now.

"It's amazing how much, even with these top athletes, best hockey players in the world that play in this league and what confidence means to him. I think he was very low on confidence a year ago in that season for many different reasons and this year when the ball started rolling in the right direction, and he got more and more confident, you could see what the other end of the potential is and it is great.

"We want him to stay."

We've talked about the Blue Jackets' future as it pertains to the NHL draft, and with that, the upcoming draft lottery on Tuesday night. Soon we'll know the draft fate of Columbus and additional draft pick compensation they can receive from the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I try not to worry about things that are not in our control," Kekalainen said. "We'll watch the lottery closely on the 10th and we'll see what happens and we'll make the pick...either two first-round picks this year or two next year. Both are good options."

Evaluating the draft is no easy business.

"People try to evaluate the draft, I'll say evaluate this year's draft five years from now, and evaluate next year's draft six years from now. That's the answer I always try to give because we talk about it with our scouting staff, 'Oh, it's not as good a draft as we think' well let's make it a good one.

"That's a tough business, I can tell you that, having done that for many years, projecting how good the 17 and 18-year-olds are going to be five years from now.

"You might think it's not a great draft but all of a sudden some guys develop totally different than you thought and they make it a good draft years later."

The 'Lars Bar' was the standard set forth by first-year head coach Brad Larsen when interviewing for the bench boss gig last year and now one year in as coach, Kekalainen likes how Larsen has handled things and building a coaching staff.

"I think adding (Pascal Vincent) was a really important thing for us," Kekalainen said. "I think he's done a great job with (Larsen) being the associate coach. Under the circumstances, we had to make a change with Steve McCarthy coming in and he's done a really good job as well.

"Jared Boll has done a little bit more this year with the coaching staff. Kenny McCudden is outstanding as a skills coach. We got the video guys that make important decisions very quickly, with Dan Singleton and Aron Augustitus, and (Manny Legace) with the goalies.

"It is about the staff mostly, but I think (Larsen) has done an excellent job. We never had any doubt about his work ethic and passion for the game. Those were big reasons why we hired him. I think he's handled it very well.

"Just like on the player side, our coaching staff can grow, too, and that's exciting."

Earlier this year, we talked about the bar the Blue Jackets were in the midst of setting for themselves, and taking that next step and contending for a playoff spot as soon as next season should be the expectation.

This season marks the first time an entire conference had every team make the playoffs with 100 or more points when the East accomplished the feat this season. 

How do the Blue Jackets make up a 20-point gap?

"First of all, I think this was a bit of an extraordinary year...I don't think there's ever been a year where (every) eighth team got over 100 points to make the playoffs," Kekalainen said. 

"We'll go about it game by game and we'll start with training camp next year," Kekalainen said. "We expect everybody to have a great off-season and get stronger and quicker and faster and more explosive and more experienced from having gone through what we went through this year. 

"We'll be better on the individual level come training camp time and we'll work at getting better as a team next year. One of the things we're going to talk about a lot this summer and do what we need to do to keep the puck out of our net."

One of the underrated aspects of a full-team reset on the ice is the facelift that the facilities are getting as part of their own reset. That could be a small part that goes a long way to players wanting to stay and even acquiring stars down the line.

"I think this facility is phenomenal," Kekalainen said. "It was time to get a little bit of a reset on the facilities as well. We're halfway there, the phase one's done. I think everybody was extremely pleased with what we did with our locker room.

"I think it's going to be unbelievable once we get done with everything in phase two. Players know the plans that we have. It's going to be right up there with the best in the league."

After the Blue Jackets made official the signings of a few prospects including Kirill Marchenko and Mikael Pyyhtia last week, there are more exciting names to think about alongside the team's future.

The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery will take place on Tuesday, May 10 at 7:00 pm ET with the NHL Draft taking place July 7-8 and free agency opening up on July 13.