After having a couple of days to digest the season's end, to conduct exit interviews with players, and to decompress, the Blue Jackets' brain trust begins to look forward to next season. And, despite the disappointment of a first-round playoff exit, there was plenty of optimism coming from both the GM and the head coach.
"We can take this to the next level," Kekäläinen said of his team's progression into next year. "I'm convinced of that. I'm really excited about the potential and the future of this team, and the individuals on it. I'm really proud of the steps the young guys took."
That theme was heard a lot from both men: happy about the progress, not satisfied, and excited about what this team can develop into over the next few seasons.
"It is positive," coach Richards said of the overall season. "It's hard, but the further you get away from the game on Monday night, the easier it is to put the emotions and disappointment aside, and you're able to reflect back. The things we were able to accomplish this year as a team, and as an organization the steps we were able to take, there's a lot to be excited and positive about. But, in the end, we finished 15th out of 30 teams. It is moving up, which we want to do, but it's still just middle of the road; it's mediocre [in terms of being] 15th in a 30 team league."
"We aren't there. We can't sit back and say, 'We're here. Take a breath.' To me, it was a great step. But, we can't be satisfied. We can't stop and take a breath and say 'We're here. We've arrived.' There's still a lot more ahead of us."
Similarly, Kekäläinen talked of pride in what the team was able to do, but pointed to next year as having the potential to be ever better. "I'm really proud about the effort," he said. "I'm really proud about the 'no-quit' in our team, and I'm proud about the identity that we established again this year. But, let's not be satisfied here. Like [Richards] said, we were 15th in the league."
So, unlike perhaps the 2009 team that was seemingly happy just to have gotten here, this group stops short of patting themselves on the back too much. That said, there's plenty of reason for optimism.
"It makes me really excited about the potential that we have in our group," Kekäläinen continued. "I talked to the players after the season ended, and I can't wait to get started for next year. It's exciting to look at our guys on an individual level and as a team, how much room we have for improvement."
Which all sounds well and good, but how can the club get there?
Kekäläinen didn't mince words, in talking about the roster. "We have the youngest team in the league, and everybody [on the roster] can get better," he said. "I'm so excited about the potential we have there, and also with our more experienced guys. We don't have any guys that are over the hill. I always believe that everyone can improve."
Richards, for his part, found the take-away from the series against Pittsburgh to be that his team needs to "play faster" next season. "We've gotta be faster as a team," he said. "Individuals have to be faster, meaning players need to use the summer to train better and get faster. As a coaching staff, we have to play faster, meaning systematic play and how we play as a team. Our battle level, our will, our want, everything was there. But, in Game 5, Pittsburgh elevated their play, and we were a little caught off guard. They were playing faster than we were."
Part of that is physical, of course, and part of it will come from the growth of the players. For a guy like Boone Jenner, the game seemed to slow down for him as the season went on. As that growth continues, he will, in a sense, start to play faster mentally.
There was definitely a feeling that the onus for a lot of this growth is on the players. Kekäläinen noted that: "What those guys have and how they play the game, you can't get much better in the area of hockey sense anymore. Your instincts for the game you've learned through the years. But, the stuff that's in their control, they can take their game to the next level just by working harder, working smarter, and putting the effort and the commitment into the off-season."
Both men had plenty to say about the young players on the team, singling out Ryan Murray, David Savard, Boone Jenner, and Ryan Johansen repeatedly. On Johansen, Kekäläinen said: "I get goosebumps thinking about where this guy can go with his career." He also noted that he was "not worried" about getting Johansen signed going into next season.
When asked about whether the plan this summer was to let the team grow itself as opposed to making a suite of moves, Kekäläinen deferred a bit, though he noted that he's "not here to make moves to make myself look good." He reiterated that every spot and opportunity for young players is earned, and nothing will be given to the bevy of young guys coming up through the organization.
In terms of his plans for the summer, Kekäläinen noted that chemistry is a big factor in his decision making in terms of roster moves. "I think that we have to be careful. We want to keep the good chemistry, and I think that was a big theme going into this year. We're going to always look at every option that we have to make our team better, but with a special group like this, you want to make sure that when we bring in people through the draft, free agency, or trade, we want to make sure about the character, the heart, and the instinct level that makes the game fast."
"I can't emphasize the character enough, to make sure we always bring in the right type of people not only as hockey players, but as teammates and human beings."
Some other notes:
- Kekäläinen didn't rule out using a compliance buyout this summer, but that was basically all he said on the subject.
- Both men went out of their way to praise the fanbase for the support down the stretch and into the playoffs. Kekäläinen specifically noted how positive it was for him to have some of the young prospects in the building for the playoff games, given the atmosphere.
- Kekäläinen told us that other coaches and staff from other teams at the World Juniors went out of their way to compliment Alexander Wennberg. "He was one of the best players in that tournament, and I'm not even being biased."
- On the pending UFAs, Kekäläinen noted they have had no meetings about UFAs because they like to let the end of the season play out with no distractions. They will meet beginning today as they start to make those decisions.
- Both men were mum on the talk of Coach Richards getting a possible contract extension, for whatever it's worth. That would seem to imply that there are some negotiations going on at present.
- On Johansen, Kekäläinen noted: "We're going to make sure to push [him] to the next level." Bridge contract!