The Columbus Blue Jackets ended their hockey season this week, falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by a tally of four games to two. While they achieved franchise records including games won and goals scored, there is still work to do to reach the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
For a team that was worst in the league a scant two years ago, the best news may be that the organization believes that many of the puzzle pieces needed to win a championship may now already be on the team.
"We can take this to the next level. I’m convinced about that," said Blue Jackets General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen yesterday at a post-season press conference. "I’m really excited about the potential and the future of this team and the individuals on it."
The Blue Jackets are the youngest team in the NHL and that youth has proven to be an asset both in play and in building an identity that Kekalainen defines as "a hard working, hard to play against, never quit, blue-collar team."
"If you want to be a teacher of the game you can really help mold and shape these young players into playing the right way and doing the right things," said head coach Todd Richards.
The young players are making an impact. The team’s leading scorer this year was 21-year-old Ryan Johansen. Richards and Kekalainen also point to Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray as key players. Both are 20 years old.
"Everybody can get better," Kekalainen said. "I’m so excited about the potential we have, also with our more experienced guys. We don’t have any guys that are over the hill."
But it’s not just the on-ice potential that has Kekalainen optimistic. The group of players that make up the Blue Jackets have character and a strong chemistry the general manager calls "really, really special." He believes those are elements to the team being ahead of schedule in their development.
"When you get in and you get in close with the team, you find out about their character from the inside and you know a lot more about these guys," Kekalainen said. "Knowing these guys, I’m not so surprised that we’re ahead of schedule compared to what I thought a year ago."
The depth of players inside the organization is another reason for Kekalainen’s confidence about the current corps of Jackets. Three first round draft picks in 2013 ensure that there is another wave of talent slowly coming closer to contributing on the NHL level.
"We’ve had some great prospects having great seasons this year," Kekalainen said. "We’re really excited about that, but we want to make sure that they take the proper steps to get stronger and be ready to compete on this level so we’re not rushing anybody."
It’s that depth and character that has Kekalainen thinking very carefully about the potential for any offseason moves.
"I think we have to be careful. We want to keep the good chemistry," Kekalainen said. "We want to be careful of that, but at the same time we are always going to look at every option we have to make our team better."
Kekalainen would not commit to any specific moves that may be pending — including the use of compliance buyouts. Team management did not engage in contract negotiations through the final chunk of regular season games nor during the playoffs to allow the players to concentrate on their play. Work on contracts will begin in the offseason.
"We meet with management almost every day to evaluate our group and look at the different ways to try and improve different positions, whether it will come from inside or whether we might need someone from the outside," Kekalainen said.
Ultimately, a general manager is a role built on the ability to make roster changes. Kekalainen, however, is comfortable watching this current group of players develop if that is the best path to success.
"I’m not here to make deals to make myself look good — I want to win," Kekalainen said. "I don’t care if we don’t make any moves. If that’s the right way in our minds to get better and grow as a group that’s fine with me — I just want to win."
Make no mistake, the offseason will demand that the Jackets leadership examine every facet of the team to identify any room for improvement.
"We’re going look at goaltending, defense, penalty killing power play players, role players, energy players — everything," Kekalainen said.
Ultimately the organization is optimistic about the future and they see this group of players as a key part of what lies ahead.
"We can’t stop and say we’ve arrived because there’s a lot more ahead of us," Richards said. "But it’s great having a good core group of young players."
Full and partial season tickets for the Blue Jackets’ 2014-15 season are currently available for purchase. For more information you can call (800) NHL-COLS or visit BlueJackets.com.