EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to Jarmo Week!
February 13 will mark the 10 year anniversary of Jarmo Kekalainen assuming the role of General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over the last decade, the franchise has seen some highs and lows, with Jarmo himself making some splashy moves and also some costly errors.
Over the course of this week, we will take a look at his performance in several areas: player contracts, draft picks, and trades. We’ll compare his moves and his results to other long-serving GMs around the league. Finally, we’ll end the week by attempting to answer the question: is Kekalainen the right man for the job going forward?
Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has earned a reputation as being a risk taker in the role — he has made some large swings during his time as leader of the Blue Jackets. Today, we take a look back at Jarmo’s best and worst signings during his tenure. Where has Jarmo succeeded, and where have his signings come up short?
A primer: according to CapFriendly, Jarmo Kekalainen has made 238 signings during his time as Columbus Blue Jackets GM, signings worth a total of $1,143,458,900. For the purposes of this exercise, we will not be including entry-level contracts in this exercise - we will only be reviewing Jarmo’s RFA extensions and UFA deals. Additionally, these lists will be presented in no particular order.
On to the list!
Sam Gagner; UFA; 1 year; $650,000; $650,000 AAV
Sam Gagner, signed on a one year deal, quickly became the reclamation project by which all project and cast off signings made by this team are judged. Gagner was signed on the heels of posting 8-8-16 in 53 games with the Philadelphia Flyers on a sort of prove-it deal. The former first rounder took full advantage of the opportunity - playing just 13:43 per night, Gagner scored 18 goals (tied for his career high), dished 32 assists, and registered 50 points (a career high). Gagner tailed off as the season progressed, but he was everything the team could have hoped for on a one year deal.
Zach Werenski; RFA; 6 years; $57,500,000; $9,583,333 AAV
Flash back the end of Zach Werenski’s bridge deal — Jackets fans were reeling from free agent departures. The team, in the two previous offseasons, had seen two time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky leave for the Florida Panthers, Artemi Panarin turn down a $13 million dollar deal to sign with the New York Rangers, and Seth Jones refuse an extension and get traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Fans were understandably on edge, but days after Jones and Cam Atkinson left town, the Jackets announced that Werenski was staying. At the time of his signing, Werenski tied for third among defensemen in the league in goals and was 19th in points since his arrival in Columbus. Injuries have hampered his impact, but Columbus has a bona fide top pairing defenseman locked down for years to come, one of the hardest parts to find and an instrumental building block for any contender.
Johnny Gaudreau; UFA; 7 years; $68,250,000; $9,750,000 AAV
The biggest free agent signing in team history, it is impossible to overstate how much the Gaudreau signing rocked not just the franchise but the entire NHL. A top-five MVP finisher coming off a career year playing in a Canadian market walked away from more guaranteed money in Calgary to sign in Columbus, a decision that broke the brains of most of the hockey media. Gaudreau immediately embraced the city and has been all that he has been advertised - the diminutive playmaker has 14-35-49 in 51 games, was an All Star, and is easily the best player on the roster.
Oliver Bjorkstrand; RFA; 5 years; $27,000,000; $5,400,000 AAV
A former third round pick who showcased scoring ability before developing into a consistent two-way forward that could drive play, score goals, kill penalties, play five on five defense, and be counted on reliably in a top six role - the dream of every hockey general manager. To top it off, the team signed him to a reasonable deal for his production level. The year after signing his extension, Bjorkstrand posted 28-29-57 in 80 games played, a huge leap for the winger. Come the start of the 2022-23 season, Bjorkstrand was a member of the Seattle Kraken, a casualty of other signings to be discussed later. However, given all that was brought up, that does not preclude the contract from being a great signing - Jarmo signed Bjorkstrand, a top six player the team developed from a third round prospect, to a friendly contract right before he took the next step. That’s the dream of every NHL GM, and the roster as currently constructed very clearly misses his presence.
Sergei Bobrovky; RFA; 4 years; $29,700,000; $7,425,000 AAV
Bobrovsky, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for second-, third-, and fourth-round picks, played three seasons for Columbus before this extension. During that time, he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and, to the point in the season where the deal was signed, was 15-10-2 with a 2.75 GAA and a .917 SV%. Bobrovsky would go on to lead the Blue Jackets to the playoffs multiple times, win another Vezina Trophy, and provide the backbone for the best team in franchise history. He also would post a perfect 12-0 record in December 2016 as Columbus tied the league-record winning streak. He has struggles in the playoffs, but also led the team to the upset over the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. Sergei Bobrovsky absolutely lived up to the terms of his extension, putting Columbus on the playoff map for the first time in franchise history.
Erik Gudbranson; UFA; 4 years; $16,000,000; $4,000,00 AAV
I fibbed slightly when I said there was no particular order - this one is in order. For my money, this is Jarmo’s worst signing. Not only is the player objectively terrible on the ice, but this signing directly cost the team one of the best signings mentioned already, Oliver Bjorkstrand. Gudbranson has been an unmitigated disaster this season - injuries have forced him higher into the lineup, but he has just 1-9-10 in 50 games played, he’s playing 20:51 per night (second most on the team among healthy players), and has been actively bad at what he was signed to do - be physical and protect players. Too often, he is a bystander while goaltenders get run over or forwards are pinned awkwardly after bad hits.
Gudbranson has a 39% Corsi at 5v5 this year (14th-worst among all defensemen with 400 minutes per MoneyPuck), a 37.5% on-ice expected goals percentage at 5v5 this year (12th-worst among all defensemen with 400 minutes per MoneyPuck), and an on-ice expected goals differential of -25.6 (11th-worst among all defensemen with 400 minutes per MoneyPuck). And, again, signing this player cost the team one of its best signings. The Gudbranson contract was an unmitigated disaster from the second pen hit paper, even before you consider that he was the team’s number one priority or that the organization didn’t even contact Johnny Gaudreau before signing Gudbranson, or that the contract already has fans speculating about his buyout potential six months into a four-year deal. This contract is terrible, with awful ramifications, and will only get worse.
Jared Boll; UFA; 3 years; $5,100,000; $1,700,000 AAV
In an earlier example of Jarmo signing fringe-roster players to term and money outside their usefulness, we have the case of Jared Boll. Boll was signed to a three-year extension as his role as pugilist and grinder was going the way of the dodo in the NHL. Instead, valuing grit and intangibles and toughness in a precursor to the Gudbranson deal, Jarmo signed Boll to a three year deal on the heels of a 2-4-6 season in 43 games played where Boll had 100 PIM and averaged 8:05 per night. The money was relatively inconsequential, but the lesson is the important note here — Jarmo signed a bad player without a clear role in the evolving, speed and skill based league, to term for no clear reason. Lessons that clearly went unheeded, given future signings Scott Harrington and Erik Gudbranson. The problem of this signing is the failure to learn any lesson from it, a common theme in Jarmo’s history.
Alexander Wennberg; RFA; 6 years; $29,400,000; $4,900,000
The NHL in the salary cap era has one immutable lesson: paying players for contract year performances is a terrible idea. the Vancouver Canucks are learning that with JT Miller, the New York Islanders just did it with new toy Bo Horvat, and Jarmo Kekalainen did it with Alexander Wennberg. Wennberg was signed on the heels of the best season in franchise history, a year where he posted 13-46-59 for a 100+ point team. The next three years in Columbus, he totaled 15-67-82 in 198 games before being bought out unceremoniously. This classic example of overpaying for a mediocre talent in a contract year who benefitted from playing with far more talented players not only cost the team on the cap but consistently drove fans insane as Wennberg struggled and failed to live up to the one year high he reached in 2016. The lesson to learn here - do not overpay RFAs (or pending UFAs) based on a single contract year.
This signing has been litigated to death, in this a space and in others, but the reason it remains is not the signing itself, but the ramifications of said signing. As everyone knows — Horton had a shoulder injury, that by the time his contract could become insured he had developed a back injury, and his contract could never be insured, so the team was on the hook for the money whether or not he was on LTIR. Horton’s contract was eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who could stash him on LTIR and take the financial hit because their organization rakes in money, and the Blue Jackets gained a player who could plausibly contribute on the ice. The Blue Jackets, to extricate themselves from the mess created by the Horton deal, then traded Clarkson, a 2017 first round pick that became Kristian Vesalainen, and 2019 second round pick that became Samuel Fagemo to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The lesson here — do not compound one mistake by making more on top of said mistake.
The lesson here? Learn lessons and thoroughly vet your ideas. Zac Rinaldo was signed to a one year, two way deal on August 13, 2021. Rinaldo had registered just 18 goals and 24 assists to go along with 758 penalty minutes in 374 games. But, Rinaldo refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine because he’s an anti-science moron in the vein of Kyrie Irving, and never played a single game for the Blue Jackets despite drawing a salary. Jarmo and the other NHL GMs knew that one of the conditions for players to play in the 2021-22 season was to get some form of the COVID vaccine given that they prevent death and protect those who are immune-compromised. Jarmo, evidently, did not ask Rinaldo the one single question that could have disqualified him from playing: “Are you vaccinated, and if not, are you planning to get the vaccine?” It is almost staggeringly unbelievable that Jarmo inked Rinaldo to a deal without confirming his vaccination status. This occurring in the same month as the team hiring and firing Sylvain Lefebvre over his vaccination status shows a shocking level of incompetence at checking the basic checkboxes before making a hiring or signing.
On the whole, Jarmo’s highs are high while his lows are shockingly low. In addition, there are several alarming trends of Jarmo failing to learn lessons from his biggest mistakes. While the highs (Gaudreau, Werenski, Bjorkstrand) are high, the trends exhibited in his lows indicate a disturbing lack of lessons learned.
What are your thoughts on Jarmo’s signings? Sound off in the comments below!