This weekend, I thought back to some of my favorite toys as a kid. For years, I was obsessed with toy cars. I collected over a hundred of them from Matchbox and Hot Wheels. I learned a lot about different makes and models, and spent time organizing them in different ways. I don’t know exactly what happened to my collection. I know my mom held on to some for her grandchildren to play with, but some must have been thrown out or donated. Most of what I learned about cars has been forgotten, as I am anything but a gearhead as an adult. I’m so basic I drive a Honda.
The other toys I loved were things I could build with. At first it was large, basic wooden blocks. Then it was Lincoln Logs, and finally Lego sets. I could build anything my imagination came up with — including tracks for those toy cars. But even if I didn’t get use out of what I built, the process was entertaining and there was always satisfaction in seeing a vision brought to fruition. I haven’t played with Legos since then (though I don’t begrudge any adult who still does), but the love of building persists. I have an Ikea bookshelf I assembled myself, and it makes me feel good to think about that everytime I look at it. Cooking meal kits from Blue Apron is similarly satisfying, to be able to follow directions to take pieces and assemble them into something great. The meal tastes better knowing that it’s something I made.
As a kid I collected, and I built, and the latter was far more satisfying. I think about that when I think about the way in which general manager Jarmo Kekalainen runs the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a former scout, it is clear that he has an eye for talent, and in his nine years here he has regularly taken big swings to bring top talent to the Jackets roster. But while he collects talent, it is less clear that there is a coherent roster-building strategy. Do all the pieces fit together? Is it possible to retain that talent once it is acquired?
Unlike a Lego set, there is no instruction guide to building a Stanley Cup winner, nor is there a single approach to doing so. While we see disparate pieces, it’s possible that Jarmo has an outline that explains how they will all fit together at some point down the line. But without knowing where we’re going, we’re stuck with a sense of uncertainty as to how this roster will operate in the upcoming season.
Which young players will get the most playing time? Which players will take a step forward in development? Will the defense be better? Can Elvis be better in goal? Is this team good enough to compete for a wild card, or just bad enough that they fall well short, but also well out of contention for a top three pick in a stacked 2023 draft?
Of course, what really bothers me is it’s easier to root for a rebuilding team when you have familiarity with some players. Sunday marked the one year anniversary of the trade of Cam Atkinson, who was my favorite Jacket of all time. That led me to write about how the “loyalty” tagline was a lie. On Friday, Jarmo punched me in the gut again with the trade of my other favorite Jacket, Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Both of these players were symbolic of the old “brick by brick” strategy preached since 2012 by team president John Davidson. They were undersized day two draft picks who rose up through the system and became top scorers on the team. Both were respected leaders in the locker room and wore the “A”. Each eschewed free agency to sign long-term contracts. They stayed because they were comfortable with this city and with raising a family here. Bjorkstrand even committed to the team a year early, right as the Pierre-Luc Dubois situation was heating up.
Some may scoff at the appeal of living in Central Ohio, but this was THE reason that Johnny Gaudreau chose to sign with the Jackets. It’s not like he was well-versed in the roster. He didn’t have to be sold on the long-term vision (like Zach Werenski did when he signed his extension). He has a kid on the way and wants them to grow up in the Columbus environment. This is a factor which Jarmo himself has often praised, usually as a defense when the issue of players leaving is raised. So, being so quick to jettison players who share the same feeling seems like a rejection of what should be a core principle. Even worse is the timing, with Atkinson being dealt a day after attending the team’s draft party, and on a day when he was hosting his own child’s birthday party. Bjorkstrand was traded while on his honeymoon. Sure, there’s no great time to make a call like that, but it underscores the harsh realities of the business, which ultimately trumps the personal relationships.
It’s going to take me awhile to get over the trade of my beloved BJORKSTRAND. I’ll still have my bobblehead which commemorates his Calder Cup-winning goal with the Cleveland (nee Lake Erie) Monsters. I’ll still have my framed, autographed jersey which I was given recently. At least with Atkinson, I understood the on-ice logic in adding Jake Voracek, and once the season started his impact was immediately apparent. The paltry return of two mid-round draft picks (which Jarmo called the best of some “no good” options) for Bjorkstrand won’t be seen for years, if ever.
On the other hand, if you frame this as moving Bjorkstrand to be able to add Johnny Gaudreau, then it’s easier to take. That’s still an upgrade. There are also now opportunities for younger players like Kirill Marchenko to make the roster and have an impact. We still have Boone Jenner and Werenski as the leftovers from the old core. I love watching the up-and-coming talents like Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov play, and I will continue forming new attachments with them. It will just take a bit of time. We also now have both Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau signed long-term, and over the next four years they will feel like our own teammates and neighbors, and not just mercenaries-for-hire.
The hard part is waiting. I want to fast forward to preseason so I can see the new line combinations in action. So I can see which rookies make it impossible for the coaches to send them down to Cleveland. But that’s all still two months away. For now, the roster is just a collection in a box, and we can’t take them out to play with yet. It will require patience to see what is being built, and if it is worth it.