Ranking the Rebuilds #4…The Columbus Blue Jackets

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The Blue Jackets are about to embark on their 15th season in the NHL…a period of time in which they’ve made the playoffs twice and suffered a first round exit both times.

As you might expect from an expansion team, they were pretty awful in their first 3 seasons but with drafting Rick Nash 1st overall in 2002, there was some hope they would become legitimate.

But in the iconic 2003 draft, the Jackets selected enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev 4th overall and Dan Fritsche in the second round and the positive momentum stalled. For several years running, the Jackets floundered with a mix of disappointing draft picks and underperforming veterans.

But that would all change beginning in 2012 (when I think we can establish the start of the rebuild in Ohio) with 3 very significant moves.

In June of that year, former Blues executive John Davidson was appointed the President of Hockey Operations.

Davidson, just a few months later, would fire Scott Howson as General Manager and replace him with draft wizard Jarmo Kekalainen.

2012 was also the year that the Jackets traded Rick Nash to the Rangers, severing ties to their former 1st overall pick, perhaps realizing that investing your biggest cap hit ($7 million) in a winger was not the best winning strategy.

But, to me, the hiring of the new management team was the most significant part of the Jackets’ rebuild and a review of that management team indicates why:

The Columbus Blue Jackets started to turn a corner when John Davidson became president of hockey operations. When Davidson named Jarmo Kekalainen the team’s new general manager, the Blue Jackets were ready for launch.

They are rapidly ascending and not slowing down anytime soon.

The combo of Davidson and Kekalainen is a known commodity within hockey circles. They spent years together in St. Louis. They’re back together again in Columbus, pulling the same tricks that helped resurrect the Blues to a team of prominence.
So what is their secret? How have they been able to enjoy success over the long haul? It all starts with execution at the draft table. It specifically starts with the genius of Kekalainen.

How else can you explain the Blue Jackets landing three first-round draft talents in this past June’s draft, when starting the night with only one? The Blue Jackets drafted University of Michigan star Zach Werenski with the eighth pick. Then just before the night was over, the Blue Jackets used a second and a third to trade back into the first round. They landed the second-best skater on Central Scouting’s European list in Gabriel Carlsson. If that wasn’t enough, they still had an early second-round pick and drafted Paul Bittner, who many consider a first-round talent.

This shouldn’t surprise you. A look back at Kekalainen’s history suggests that this is the norm for him.

Let’s turn the clock back to the year 1995 for a minute. This is where the story of Kekalainen really starts.

Kekalainen served various roles within the hockey operations department of the Ottawa Senators. He spent a total of seven years with the Senators, most notably as their director of player personnel. He also oversaw both the amateur draft and European scouting for a time.

In his time with Ottawa, Kekalainen helped draft Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette and Ray Emery. At the same time, he also served as a general manager in the Finnish Elite League.

Kekalainen then joined the Blues and spent eight seasons with them from 2002 to 2010. He served as their director of amateur scouting. He was later named their assistant general manager.

The list of players that Kekalainen helped bring to St. Louis include David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo. His eye for talent is superior.

This begs the question: Has Kekalainen cracked the code of sorts when it comes to draft success? He brought star-caliber players to both Ottawa and St. Louis. He’s doing the same now in Columbus. How is he able to consistently do this over the years with different teams?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Kekalainen is one of the best in the business at spotting talent. (source)

***Worth noting that Bob MacKenzie had all 3 of Werenski, Carlsson and Bittner ranked in his top 30 and Columbus got all of them.***

Of course, the new management team doesn’t get credit for the drafts of Ryan Johansen and Dalton Prout in 2010, Boone Jenner in 2011 or, perhaps, even Ryan Murray in 2012.

But the Jackets went into the 2013 draft with 3 first round picks and appear to have hit pay dirt with all 3. (C Alexander Wennberg, LW Kerby Rychel and C Marko Dano (who was traded in this offseason in the Brandon Saad acquisition).

Then the Jackets plucked WHL scoring sensation RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (63G 118P with Portland last season) in the 3rd round which in hindsight was a huge steal.

It’s too early to make a call on 2014 1st round pick Sonny Milano but the speedy LW had 5 points in 10 AHL games late last season and looks like a player.

Hockey’s Future has the Jackets prospect depth ranked 10th in the NHL:

Strengths: The Columbus Blue Jackets have oodles of depth at forward. Centers Alex Wennberg, Marko Dano, and William Karlsson are all close to playing regular minutes at the NHL level, and others such as Sonny Milano and Kerby Rychel are not too far behind. The system also had several other forwards with extremely high upside, namely WHL standout Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has been one of the top goal-scorers in Canadian major junior hockey. There is also strong depth in net, with Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo competing for starts at the minor league level.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jackets lack both talent and depth along the blue line, an issue that was made all the more pressing when standout defensive prospect Mike Reilly opted to test free agency instead of signing with Columbus. The team could probably stand to add more depth along the wing, though given their depth at center, it is not as pressing an issue as it could be.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Alexander Wennberg, C, 2. Sonny Milano, 3. Marko Dano, C, 4. Kerby Rychel, LW, 5. Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW.

If there is a weakness on the Jackets roster, it is indeed on D.

While Ryan Murray is still an outstanding prospect, he has been plagued by injury playing only 88 games since being drafted #2 overall in 2012.

To get to the next level, the Jackets need Murray to live up to his draft pedigree and become the legit #1D that he was projected to be. If he doesn’t. the Jackets may have to parlay their impressive forward depth into a top pairing D or wait on their impressive 2015 draft picks.

The addition of blue chip D prospects Zack Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson will likely solve their D issues in the medium future but, until they arrive, the Jackets will have to outwork and outscore the opposition.

With Sergei Bobrovski (.918) in net, and several high end G prospects, the Jackets seem set at that position so, in the upcoming season, it will fall to their forwards to win the war.

They are loaded at C with Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner, Branson Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg and Gregory Campbell so no issues there.

And the addition of Brandon Saad should give their depth at wing a shot in the arm but it will likely take the emergence of Milano, Bjorkstrand, Rychel and Bittner to turn them into perennial contenders.

The Jackets missed the playoffs last season due to a perfect storm of injuries:

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Barring another catastrophic season of walking wounded, that won’t happen again and the Jackets will easily be a playoff team next season.

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