When Columbus Blue Jackets President John Davidson announced the team is hiring Finnish SM-Liiga club Jokerit’s Jarmo Kekalainen to fill its vacant general manager position, the former Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators center made history as the first NHL GM born in Europe. Beyond that, he represents a major signal that the Columbus Blue Jackets are tired of wallowing in the Central Division cellar and are ready to begin building a contender.
The two worked together with the St. Louis Blues for four years, Davidson as team president and the Finnish-born, American-educated Kekalainen as head scout and assistant GM. After being passed over for Doug Armstrong as St. Louis’ new GM, he moved back to Finland to manage Jokerit. Prior to his time with St. Louis, Kekalainen was chief European scout for eight years in the Ottawa Senators organization. He also served as the manager for HIFK in the SM-Liiga and took them from a struggling squad to league champions.
Jarmo Kekalainen has certainly shown a keen eye for talent over the years. In four years working with Davidson he built the foundation of the Blues team that won last year’s Central Division title, scouting and drafting players like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and Alex Pietrangelo. And while in Ottawa, he helped to draft and develop Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher and Chicago Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery.
Columbus has been the laughingstock of the Western Conference for years mostly because of mismanagement. Scott Howson, who held the GM post for the last six years, epitomized this when he announced to the world that Rick Nash had come to him requesting a trade last season. Before Howson there was Doug MacLean (whose record stands on its own). If Jarmo Kekalainen is to be taken at his word, he’s the antithesis of the old way of doing things in Columbus.
“I’ve always approached every job that I’ve had with an open mind of getting to know people, evaluating people I’m going to work with and want to work with,” he told NHL.com. “That’ll start from the players and the coaching staff and the scouts and go through everybody. I think that’s a strength of mine that I’m going to use again in this job. I’m going to come with an open mind and basically be preaching the same story as [Davidson], we’re going to build brick by brick and one step at a time.”
There’s every reason to believe that things are going to improve in Columbus over the next few years. The Central Division, already crowded with strong front-office management and winning teams on the ice, looks like ground zero for an NHL arms race now that the perennial losers have finally locked up a solid management team of their own. Right now the Blue Jackets are still the divisional whipping boys, but they’ve shown some fight this season and aren’t as far back as they have been in recent years. In that regard they look an awful lot like the Nashville Predators squads of the early 2000s, scrappy teams that made life difficult for every opponent and eventually developed into a consistent winning franchise that nobody want to play against. Now that they have a manager with a proven eye for managing a team and drafting quality talent, they’ll be in position to mirror the Nashville Predators in a lot of other ways, too.
The already-tight Central Division is going to get a lot tighter now that Columbus has a manager with a successful management track record and a proven eye for quality talent. With the Blue Jackets holding three first-round picks in this year’s draft, Jarmo Kekalainen is going to have a chance to give his new team a jump-start on long-term success. His former colleagues in St. Louis and the rest of the competition in Chicago, Detroit, and Nashville had better be ready to compete.