With just eight games remaining in what has become a trying season for the Blue Jackets, the process of getting better and evaluating players and the team is in full swing.
The team is on a five-game winning streak, having beaten some good teams along the way. The collective mindset is on finishing the season on a high note by playing these last few games the right way. The players know that some of them are fighting for jobs as their season draws to a close and that many are still developing and looking to take the next step in their careers.
FOX Sports Ohio recently sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen. The topics ranged from what he expects from the team over the remaining games to scouting players in advance of what’s considered to be the deepest draft in over a decade.
What do you expect to see from the team over the remaining eight games?
"I think we approach every game the same way. Every day we’re evaluating the team and the individuals; how they’re doing, how they’re competing, the pride they have in putting their jersey on. I’d like to see a better performance at home. We’ve beaten some good teams on the road and played some very good road games. We have a bit of a (winning) streak on the road, which I don’t put a lot of value to. It’s nice, of course, and it’s good to win games.
"But I’d like to see us have a better home record and win some more games at home. But every day is an opportunity to show why they belong on this team. That’s basically the way I approach it. Whether it’s a young guy, an experienced guy, a veteran or whatever, it’s the same thing for everybody.
"I think the good thing that we’ve seen from the injuries and the absence of some of the big boots that have been filled by the young players that got an opportunity, that probably wouldn’t have got in if there weren’t any injuries. But they also played so well that everybody’s kind of saying maybe they can play and go sooner than we thought; guys like (Marko) Dano and (Alex) Wennberg.
"I think those are the positives. Those are great problems, if you want to call them problems, to have. You see guys that are progressing a little faster and better than you thought."
How are you going about building a better team?
"I think it comes from our ability to evaluate players. It’s about having the ability to draft well. That’s where it starts. I think we have a very good amateur scouting staff in place. (Ville Siren [Head Amateur Scout], Paul Castron [Director of Amateur Scouting], Mike Antonovich,Josef Boumedienne, Greg Drechsel, Niklas Evertsson, Derek Ginnell, John Hill, Stephane Leblanc, Chris Morehouse, Rob Riley, Andy Schneider, Milan Tichy) And then, from the time that we draft and start to develop, there’s Chris Clark (Development Coach) that takes care of that and does a great job.
"The emphasis we want to have here when they get to the pros, whether it’s in Springfield or even up here, with a young team we have to have that mentality, even where we’re already pros, we’re still developing these young players to be better every day. That’s the one thing I’d like to see about our team in the last few games is that every game is an opportunity to get better as individuals and as a team."
Are goaltenders Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk ready, in your eyes, to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL?
"It’s hard to tell. There’s a lot of time between now and training camp. That’s a time to see where they’re at for next year. I think Forsberg’s played really well in the minors this year. He had some struggles when he came up here, but we expected that. That’s a position, in particular, that every mistake when you’re a goaltender is on the board. You can make a mistake as a left winger or on the fourth line and no one’s ever going to see it or notice it. You make a mistake (as a goalie), and it’s in the net, up on the board and everybody’s going ‘whoa, what happened there?’
"(Forsberg) had a couple of tough games here, but he’s shown that he’s really developed a lot this year. He’s taken another step in his career. He made the All-Star Team at the American (Hockey League) level. He’s played a really solid season there, so we expect him to take the next step next year. That’s where it’s going to lead and where it’s going to end up.
"Is he going to be ready for the NHL? I’m not sure, especially in the goaltending position that you want to be ready too soon when we have a number one goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) that’s probably going to play anywhere from sixty to seventy games a year. As a young goaltender, you want to keep playing games. You want to keep developing when you play. So, we’ll evaluate that when we get to training camp.
"And Oscar is a young goalie, first year pro, and he’s going to have more competition next year with Joonas Korpisalo. And, we’re probably going to draft a goalie or two with the many picks that we have this summer."
How has backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney performed since his concussion and will he return to backup Sergei Bobrovsky for the 2015-2016 season?
"That was a tough situation for him. He had a great stretch in January and he played really well for us when Bob (Bobrovsky) got hurt the second time. He’s a great pro. We have a lot of respect for the work he does. And like everybody else, when we get to the end of the season, we’ll keep evaluating and make our decision in the offseason."
At this point in the development of building the team to be a playoff contender, is it more a matter of tweaking the roster versus major overhauls at any position?
"I think we need to add a little bit more depth on defense to make sure… I mean defense is a position that if you have injuries you’re going to be in a tough situation. The guys that come up to play from the minors have to be NHL-ready, at least, for the amount of games that they need to play at that time. That can expose you if they’re not. I think with the amount of players that we have now under contract for next year, and the prospects that we have, whether that’s in Springfield, junior or college coming to the pros, we have to make sure that we have enough depth for next year. That’s something that we’ll focus on in the offseason.
"Other than that, I think that we have a lot of good, young forwards. They’re developing and taking the next steps. Who knows how fast or how soon (they develop)? It’s guys like (Sonny) Milano, Josh Anderson’s been here, Kerby Rychel has shown that he’s played some pretty good games in the NHL already. I just saw Oliver Bjorkstrand (WHL). He scored 63 goals in the regular season and he’s going to turn pro next year. Those are exciting things.
"We don’t want to rush them and we don’t need to rush them. Some of those guys might surprise us and show that they’re more ready than we thought they are. It’s going to be an exciting offseason seeing those young guys work and develop. Then we’ll get to training camp and Traverse City (prospect tournament), it will be even more exciting."
You have shown that you’re not afraid to add a player, whether through the draft, free agent signing or waiver claim, that you think will help the team. What gives you the ability to find these players that may not have been on most people’s radar?
"I think I’m in a position now where I have to trust our scouts. I was in that position before where I had general managers that trusted the scouts and I got some work done because I was allowed to do my job. That’s what I’m trying to do now. I read their reports and listen to their opinion. And then when they have a strong opinion on a guy, I study him myself and make decisions. That’s what it’s all about.
"That’s why we’ve gathered a lot of picks for next summer’s draft, because it’s supposed to be a great draft. We have one first, three seconds and two thirds. I think that puts our scouting staff into a great situation where they can show us that they’re good at what they do. We trust them and let them do their job.
"The same goes with our pro staff (Marshall Davidson, Peter Dineen, Bob Halkidis, Doug Macdonald, Sam McMaster). We have Sam McMaster who was very high on Kevin Connauton. Those are the guys that we talk to and those are the guys that we trust and listen to. It is good scouts that find players. It’s not very often that general managers do the grassroots work."
Do you miss the days when you were scouting players full-time?
"Yes, I do. I see a lot of the friends that I scouted with, so I get to enjoy that part, too. I’ve done a lot of scouting lately and I’ll do some more as we get deeper into the spring. So, I’ll still get an opportunity to do that. I did it for 15 years and I’ve done a lot of miles," he finished with a smile.
The Blue Jackets take on the St. Louis Blues Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m., with the FOX Sports Ohio pregame show "Blue Jackets LIVE" beginning at 7:30 p.m.