COLUMBUS, Ohio – General manager Jarmo Kekalainen was discussing the closeness of the Columbus Blue Jackets this season.
Then he caught himself.
“I try to be careful with the word ‘family,’ because you don’t trade family members,” he said, smiling.
No, Kekalainen isn’t preparing to tear up the Blue Jackets and rebuild, as has been the case several times in the team’s spotty, 13-season history. Instead, he’s hoping to build on the franchise’s best season ever.
The Blue Jackets set team records in the regular season for wins (43), points (93), road wins (21) and goals scored 231. After capturing a wild-card spot for their second trip to the playoffs, the club gave the superstar-laden Pittsburgh Penguins all they could handle before bowing out in six close games of their first-round series.
Clearly, there’s a feeling of optimism and accomplishment with the Blue Jackets for a change.
Still, that doesn’t mean there’s not an arena full of room for improvement.
“There’s a lot to be excited about and be positive about,” head coach Todd Richards said. “But in the end, we finished 15th out of 30 teams. It is moving up, that’s what we want to do, but it’s still just middle-of-the-road. It’s mediocre.”
Richards, Kekalainen and director of hockey operations John Davidson and their staffs met with the Blue Jackets players one-on-one on Thursday, laying out what is expected of them before the team reconvenes again in camp.
Kekalainen lavished praise on the club’s youngsters such as 21-year-old centre Ryan Johansen (33 goals, 30 assists), 20-year-old centre Boone Jenner (16 goals, 13 assists) and 20-year-old defenceman Ryan Murray (21 points, a +4 plus/minus rating).
Instead of a team driven by its veterans, Kekalainen said he thinks the younger guys will be pushing the older ones.
“They’re going to earn even bigger roles on the team,” he said. “The older guys might think, ‘OK, I don’t have a lot of room for improvement.’ Then they watch these young guys get bigger, stronger and faster next to them. And they’re going to go, ‘What is he doing? What can I do to make sure I stay up with this guy?'”
Richards said the key was to not rest on one relatively successful season.
“We want to keep pushing, keep getting better,” he said. “(This season was) a great step. But we can’t be satisfied, we can’t stop and take a breath and say that we’re here or we’ve arrived, because there’s still a lot more ahead of us.”
It’s highly unlikely that there will be very much turnover on the roster. There are only six unrestricted free agents—forwards Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau and Jack Skille, defencemen Nikita Nikitin and Nick Shultz and backup goalie Curtis McElhinney. The Blue Jackets will undoubtedly try to re-sign the three forwards.
The No. 1 issue in the off-season might be signing restricted free agent Johansen, who made $810,000 last year and is due a new pact. The club will, without question, also try to negotiate new deals with young defencemen David Savard and Dalton Prout, also entering the final years of their contracts.
Kekalainen won’t tamper with the blue-collar team’s identity.
“We have to be careful. We want to keep our good chemistry,” he said. “We always want to bring in the right kind of people, not only as hockey players but as teammates and human beings. It’s going to be an important part of our scouting manual.”
Richards said it became clear to him as the playoff series progressed that the Penguins were getting quicker as they won Games 5 and 6 to advance. He’d like to see his team get faster.
“It’s not that we’re going to change everything,” he said. “Pittsburgh elevated their play. Even in Games 5 and 6 we were there with them. But when they cranked it up, there were points of the games where they were playing faster than we were.”
The Blue Jackets drew capacity crowds in the playoffs. They seemed to catch the focus of the entire city and state.
The crowds were loud and boisterous. Thousands flooded the bars and restaurants near the arena on game nights. The press box was full of reporters, and announcers spoke glowingly of the city and the team on national telecasts.
During a rain delay on Monday night, the Cincinnati Reds even showed the Blue Jackets’ playoff game on their scoreboard.
There was more excitement about the franchise than ever before. Kekalainen felt it, and it made him even more motivated to have it all happen again.
“I wish training camp was here already and we could get started because of the potential I see with our group,” he said.
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